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Copyright 2016 Chris Wickham

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Title: Medieval Europe / Chris Wickham.
Description: New Haven : Yale University Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical
LCCN 2016018675 | ISBN 9780300208344 (cloth : alkaline paper)
LCSH: EuropeHistory4761492. | Middle Ages. | Social changeEurope
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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


List of illustrations and maps vi

Acknowledgements viii

1 A new look at the middle ages 1

2 Rome and its western successors, 500750 22
3 Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 43
4 The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 61
5 The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 80
6 Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 99
7 The long economic boom, 9501300 121
8 The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 141
9 1204: the failure of alternatives 170
10 Defining society: gender and community in late
medieval Europe 186
11 Money, war and death, 13501500 210
12 Rethinking politics, 13501500 235
13 Conclusion 252

Notes 258
Bibliography 288
Index 316

Illustrations and maps

1 Ivory diptych for Manlius Boethius, 487. Museo Civico Cristiano, Brescia,
Italy/Bridgeman Images.
2 Saint Jean baptistery, Poitiers, sixth century. Nick Hanna/Alamy Stock Photo.
3 Votive crown of Recceswinth, 660s. Prisma Archivo/Alamy Stock Photo.
4 Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul), 530s. Photo by Leslie Brubaker.
5 Birmingham Quran, c. 640s650s, fols 2r and 1v. University of Birmingham.
6 Reception hall, Madinat al-Zahra, Crdoba, 950s.
7 Palace chapel, Aachen cathedral, c. 800.
8 Frankish legal handbook, 850s870s, Wolfenbttel Herzog August
Bibliothek Cod. Guelf. 299 Gud. lat. Herzog August Bibliothek
Wolfenbttel (
9 Lindisfarne Gospels, Gospel of Luke, early eighth century. The British
Library (Cotton MS Nero D.IV, f.139).
10 Stave church, Heddal, Norway, thirteenth century.
11 Bronze doors, Gniezno cathedral, late twelfth century, depicting the death
scene of the life of Adalbert of Prague. Jan Wlodarczyk/AlamyStock Photo.
12 Rocca San Silvestro, Tuscany, thirteenth century. Ventodiluna.
13 Apse mosaic of San Clemente, Rome, c. 1118. imageBROKER/Alamy
Stock Photo.
14 Pisa cathedral, late eleventh and early twelfth century. M&M Photo.
15 Gravensteen castle, Ghent, late twelfth century. Alpineguide/AlamyStock
16 The Mercure Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford, thirteenthsixteenth centuries.
Mark Beton/England/Alamy Stock Photo.
17 Notre Dame cathedral, le de la Cit, Paris. Peter Bull.
18 Pipe roll, late twelfth century, 10 Hen II, 116364. The National Archives,

Illustrations and maps vii

19 Statues of Ekkehard of Meissen and Uta of Ballenstadt, Naumburg cathe-

dral, mid-thirteenth century. VPC Travel Photo/AlamyStock Photo.
20 The Dream of Innocent III, fresco by Giotto di Bondone, church of San
Francesco, Assisi, 1290s. Bridgeman Images.
21 Northern (Istanbul) gate, city walls of Nicaea (znik, Turkey), Roman to
early thirteenth century. EBA.
22 The Anastasis, Kariye Camii (Chora monastery), Constantinople (Istanbul),
c. 1320. QC.
23 Rumeli Hisar, Istanbul, 1452.
24 Church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Vladimir, c. 1160. www.123rf.
com/Elena Shchipkova.
25 St Anne teaching the Virgin to read, French manuscript illumination,
1430s. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 5, fol. 45v. Digital image
courtesy of the Gettys Open Content Program.
26 Effects of good government in the city, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Palazzo
Pubblico, Siena, 133839. Fonazione Musei Senesi.
27 Egil Skallagrimsson, illustration probably by Hjalti orsteinsson from an
Icelandic manuscript, seventeenth century, AM 426, f. 2v. Photo by Jhanna
lafsdttir, image courtesy of the rni Magnsson Institute for Icelandic
28 Belfry, Bruges, 1480s. Jank1000 |
29 Charles bridge, Prague, late fourteenth century. Book Travel Prague.
30 Patio de las Doncellas, Alcazar, Seville, 1360s. funkyfood London Paul
Williams/AlamyStock Photo.
31 Enea Silvio Piccolomini sets out for the Council of Basel, by Pinturicchio,
Siena cathedral, 1500s. Piccolomini Library, Siena Cathedral, Italy/
F. Lensini, Siena/Bridgeman Images.
32 Piazza Pio II, Pienza, Tuscany, 145962. Siephoto/Masterfile.

1 Europe in 550.
2 Western Europe in 850.
3 Eastern Europe in 850.
4 Western Europe in 1150.
5 Eastern Europe in 1150.
6 Western Europe in 1500.
7 Eastern Europe in 1500.

My first thanks go to Heather McCallum, who suggested that I write this book
and finally persuaded me; she also critiqued its drafts and was a reality check
throughout. Leslie Brubaker read the whole book and made it clear what
changes I could not avoid making; so did two very supportive Yale readers.
Many other friends read parts of the book: Pat Geary and Mayke de Jong read
Chapters 1 to 6, Lesley Abrams read Chapter 5, Chris Dyer read Chapter 7,
John Arnold read Chapter 8, Robert Swanson read Chapter 10, Lyndal Roper
read Chapters 10 and 12, John Watts read Chapters 11 and 12. I could not have
done this without their (often highly critical) support, especially when I moved
into parts of the middle ages I knew relatively little about. Several other people
helped me with advice and references and to find books: Peter Coss, Lorena
Fierro Daz, Marek Jankowiak, Tom Lambert, Isabella Lazzarini, Conrad
Leyser, Sophie Marnette, Giedre Mickunaite, Maureen Miller, Natalia
Nowakowska, Helmut Reimitz, John Sabapathy, Mark Whittow, Emily Winkler,
are only some of them. I cannot even list the many people who saved me from
errors in casual conversation, not knowing that I was taking mental notes; but
all the speakers at the Monday-at-5 medieval seminar which I have run for
eleven years at Oxford with Mark Whittow have contributed, in one way or
another, to my ideas in this book. I have also to thank RAE2008 and REF2014
for their intellectual stimulus: they forced me to read significant books and
articles on a wide variety of topics which I would not always have come across
otherwise, and many of these are in the bibliography.
January 2016

s Roman empire, c. 400
Pi N o r t h Baltic Approximate borders of states, c. 650
Hadrians S e a Sea
Wall Byzantine empire, c. 650




S a xg l o -

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Tournai e

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Atlantic Brittany I Bavaria Danube

Chur Ava r s B l a c k S e a

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Provence KINGDOM Ad

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O T Rome N
G Aegean A M Tarsus Eup
S I S P A I N Naples h ra te s
V I Toledo Sea E Antioch
O M Sardinia SYRIA

N Sicily Damascus

K I Crdoba Cyprus
Syracuse N
Seville Carthage I

T Crete

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M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a T

I Mecca,
0 miles 500 L Medina
C Re
0 km 800 N Se
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Map 1 Europe in 550.
Ic e l a n d


ALBA Baltic
N o r t h
Bamburgh DENMARK
S e a Sea
i N


Eganachta Offas Dyke ri
WALES F Saxony
MERCIA Ipswich
London Dorestad Gandersheim
Hamwic Nivelles E A S T E lb e
Cologne Fulda
KENT Tertry

Frankfurt M O R AV I A
Compigne Laon Mainz
Rouen Attigny F R A N C I A
e n


Paris Verdun D anu b e

Se i

At l a n t i c W E S T

O c e a n Tours L St. Gallen
Autun S
F R A N C I A L P Friuli
Geneva A Milan
Lyon Venice
Pavia Po

Aquitaine Cremona
Cahors IT
Oviedo Provence A Car
Languedoc Y Gra
Spoleto Adriatic
Rome Benevento
Zaragoza Barcelona
A L - A N D A L U S Naples
Toledo Sardinia

Crdoba Me d i t e r ra n e a n S e a Sicily Syracuse

Seville Granada


0 miles 500
Approximate borders of states, c. 850
0 km 800

Map 2 Western Europe in 850.

Byzantine empire, c. 850
Additions by c. 1050




e d e

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Fyn Jutland



Vis E
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r Kiev E
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Marmara P


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Sicily ph
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M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a

0 miles 500 Re
Ni d
le Se
0 km 800

Map 3 Eastern Europe in 850.

Ic e l a n d


N o r t h Baltic
S e a Sea


Stratford Saxony Braunschweig
WELSH KINGDOMS London Utrecht Meissen
Canterbury Tilleda
Winchester Bruges E lb
Ypres Ghent Cologne e
Hastings Arras Flanders
Rhi A N Y
Hauteville orm Reims Metz
an Bohemia
d Bec
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Champagne Marsal
Moyenmoutier Da
Toul nu b e
Chartres Clairvaux Zhringen
Anjou Orlans Burgundy Bavaria
At l a n t i c Austria

O c e a n
Lusignan Poitou S REP.


Clermont Lyon A Legnano

Angoulme Milan Venice

Aquitaine Genoa Bologna

Monforte I TA LY

Toulouse Pisa Florence Ad Cari

P y Provence Tuscany Siena riat
Lon r e n Languedoc Tintinnano ic S Grad
NAVARRE e e s ea
L E N - ARAGN Sutri Anagni
Catalonia Rome Benevento
Zaragoza PAPAL
C A S T I L E Salerno
Balearic Is. Aversa
Toledo Sardinia NORMAN
Valencia Palma
A L - A N D A L U S Palermo
Crdoba Las Navas de Tolosa
Me d i t e r ra n e a n S e a Sicily
Seville Granada


0 miles 500
Approximate borders of states, c. 1150
0 km 800

Map 4 Western Europe in 1150.

Approximate borders of states, c. 1150





Elb O F R U S

Gniezno Vis
tula E

de P

E M P I R E Prague T
S Do
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ti a
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Smyrna is

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M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a C RU S A D E R
Alexandria Tinnis
0 miles 500 Re
Ni d
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0 km 800

Map 5 Eastern Europe in 1150.

Ic e l a n d


N o r t h Baltic
S e a Copenhagen
IRELAND York Dithmarschen
Chester Leicester Lynn
WALES Brandenburg
Oxford Holland E lb
London Canterbury e
Rochester Antwerp
Ghent Cologne Prague
Calais BOHEMIA Kutn Hora
Agincourt Bruges Rhi Tbor

Reims Nrnberg
Paris Ulm Augsburg
Brittany Freiburg D anu b e
At l a n t i c Anjou SWITZERLAND Basel Konstanz Austria
Habsburg Zrich Friesach
O c e a n Poitiers Bern Luzern
F R A N C E Padua V E
Milan ET
Bordeaux Venice IA
Gascony Bologna Ferrara N
Avignon Genoa Lucca RE
Santiago Toulouse Beaucaire P.
Pisa Florence
de Compostela Montpellier Provence Siena Assisi A
NAVARRE Montaillou d riatRagusa
Lon Pienza
Languedoc Orvieto ic S
Catalonia Rome
Salamanca Naples
Toledo Sardinia
Lisbon Valencia
C A S T I L E Iglesias
Me d i t e r ra n e a n S e a S I C I LY
Seville Granada

Approximate borders of states, c. 1500 0 miles 500

Ferrara Independent state
0 km 800

Map 6 Western Europe in 1500.

Approximate borders of states, c. 1500


Fi n l a n d

Novgorod M U S C O V Y

Baltic Lithuanian
DENMARK Sea Heartland Ryazan

Elb Pomerania

e Tannenberg GOLDEN HORDE

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Bohemia r E
E M P I R E Prague Krakow T
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(Venetian) (Venetian)

M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a

Cairo K
0 miles 500 A
M Re
Ni d
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0 km 800

Map 7 Eastern Europe in 1500.

1. Consular diptych for Manlius Boethius, 487. It was very common for late Roman aristocrats to
commission commemorative ivory diptychs (pictures in two halves) such as this one, for special
occasions in this case Boethius appointment as consul and prefect of Rome. On the right he
holds the signal for the start of chariot racing, for these offices involved the patronage of expensive
games. The consul was probably the father of the major philosopher, also called Boethius, executed
for treason by Theoderic, king of Italy, in 524.
2. The baptistery at Poitiers, sixth century. Very little
survives of Merovingian monumental architecture,
but this is a good example, in a major city of
southern Gaul. All the fabric visible here is original
except the modern buttresses, put there to stop it
falling down the hill. How much of it dates from the
late Roman period, before the Frankish conquest in
507, is a matter of dispute, but the building certainly
shows that the Merovingians built or rebuilt in a
classic Roman style.

3. The votive crown of Recceswinth, 660s. Several

crowns given to a church, including those of two
Visigothic kings, were found in a treasure hoard
in 1858 at Huertas de Guarrazar near Toledo, the
Visigothic capital. This one is in gold set with
jewels, with the name of the king in pendants
hanging below. It is unlikely that it was ever worn.
Giving such crowns was a Byzantine practice,
imitated by the Visigoths.
4. Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (now Istanbul), 530s. The Great Church of the Byzantine capital
was built by the emperor Justinian in 53237 on a huge scale, larger than any other known roofed
building from the Roman empire, and larger than any European successor until Seville cathedral,
built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The roof fell in in 557 and was rebuilt by 562.
Only the Ottoman minarets are more recent.
5. The Birmingham Quran, c. 640s650s. The parchment of these pages of the Quran, discovered
in the University of Birmingham library in 2013, have been carbon-dated to before 645 with 95
per cent accuracy. The text would thus have been written later normally not all that much later.
This date plausibly fits the caliphate of Uthman (64456), who is credited in Islamic tradition with
the compilation of the Muslim holy book in its present form. This plausibility, however, has not
prevented arguments about Quranic dating from continuing.
6. The reconstructed reception hall of the Umayyad caliphs of Crdoba at Madinat al-Zahra,
950s. Abd al-Rahman III built this palace, which was destroyed around 1010; it was excavated in
the twentieth century, and reconstructed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Its stucco
decoration is of very high quality, and we have narrative accounts of how much it impressed envoys
from abroad.
7. Charlemagnes palace chapel
at Aachen, interior, c. 800.
Charlemagnes new capital at Aachen
had a large chapel attached, which
was consecrated by Pope Leo III
in 805. It was built to the richest
specifications, with marble veneer
walling (taken from Rome and
Ravenna, according to Einhard,
Charlemagnes biographer), bronze
work and now-lost frescoes.

8. A Frankish legal handbook

from the 850s870s. This book,
surviving in Wolfenbttel in
Germany, is a ninth-century
compilation of Frankish law, from
the sixth-century Lex Salica (its
opening page is pictured) to the
capitularies of Charlemagnes time,
up to the 810s. There are dozens
of such collections surviving from
the period, and they show the
importance to Carolingian political
leaders of having such handbooks
of legal materials.
9. The Lindisfarne gospels, early eighth century. These gospels are among the most sumptuously
illustrated of the whole medieval period. They were probably written and illustrated at the
monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, and are similar to several other gospel books of the
same period in England and Ireland, regions which specialised in such decoration. This page opens
the Gospel of Luke.
10. The stave church of Heddal, Norway, thirteenth century. Medieval Norway specialised in a
highly innovative style for churches made of wood. This, at Heddal in southern Norway, is the
largest, although it was enlarged in the 1890s.
11. The bronze doors of Gniezno cathedral, late twelfth century. Polands earliest cathedral was
rebuilt in the fourteenth century, but these doors survive. They show scenes from the life of the
missionary Adalbert of Prague, killed by pagan Prussians in 997, whose body was later bought
by the Poles and buried in the cathedral; the scene above the right-hand doorknob shows his
death. Their style is that of the German-French borderlands, but the workmen could have
come to Poland to make them.
12. Rocca San Silvestro, Tuscany, thirteenth century. Perhaps the best-preserved abandoned
medieval village anywhere, Rocca San Silvestro was a silver- and copper-mining village on the
Tuscan coast until the metal ran out; its high point, and the date of the present buildings, was the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle at the top was the lords; the rest was the housing of
ordinary villagers, in very good quality stonework. The lord controlled the mining very closely, but
the miners seem to have been prosperous too.

13. The apse mosaic of San Clemente, Rome, c. 1118. This spectacular and expensive mosaic,
commissioned by a cardinal close to Pope Paschal II, consists of a vine-scroll representing the
Christian Church, and is full of images of humans, some of them doing domestic tasks. It shows how
the papal leadership wished to display the symbolism of their power and wealth, at a time when they
struggled to control Rome itself.
14. Pisa cathedral, late eleventh and early twelfth century. This building is the most innovative
Italian church of its time, and clearly shows the ambition of the Pisans. Much of the cost of the
building was paid for from booty taken from naval attacks on rich Muslim cities, some of which are
commemorated in inscriptions on its faade.
15. The castle of Ghent, late twelfth century. The core of the castle of the counts of Flanders at
Ghent (including the gateway on the right) is original, although the building was substantially
rebuilt in the nineteenth century. It was one of the major centres of the power of the counts, inside
what became the largest town in Flanders. Ghents success as a manufacturing centre started with
the castle, but the town became the counts most serious opponent as it became larger and richer.
16. The Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon, thirteenthsixteenth centuries. The plot that the
hotel sits on is one of the original plots laid out at the foundation of Stratford around 1200, still
visible in the town plan. The building itself, in classic English urban half-timbering, dates to the
Tudor period, and has been restored since.

17. Notre Dame cathedral, Paris. This church is the best-known of the wave of large and expensive
gothic churches built in northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in this case in the
1160s1260s. The spire is nineteenth-century.
18. A pipe roll, late twelfth century. The English Exchequer (finance department) pioneered
systematic copies of government administrative acts; they survive from 1130, and in a near-
complete sequence from 1156. Their name comes from the tube shape when the parchments (in
sets sewn together) were rolled up.

19. Statues of Ekkehard of Meissen and Uta of Ballenstedt, Naumburg, mid-thirteenth century.
These statues are of eleventh-century founders of Naumburg cathedral in north-east Germany, put
up two centuries later as part of a group of twelve very high-quality sculptures. They well show the
attachment of church communities to lay patrons, which was a feature of every medieval century.
20. The Dream of Innocent III, Assisi, 1290s. This fresco in San Francesco, the first great Franciscan
church, plausibly ascribed to Giotto and his school, depicts Innocent dreaming that Francis of
Assisi was holding up the Lateran basilica (the cathedral of Rome) on his own. This was part of the
early myth-making around Francis and his remarkable political success.
21. The northern (Istanbul) gate of Nicaea, Roman to early thirteenth century. These monumental
walls and gate have a Roman base, but were systematically repaired and rebuilt in the Byzantine
period, in particular under the emperors of Nicaea (120461).

22. The Anastasis, Kariye Camii, Istanbul, c. 1320. The Chora (Kariye) monastery was built by the
senior Constantinople administrator and intellectual Theodore Metochites in 131521. This is its
most dramatic fresco, of Christ harrowing hell here he is lifting up Adam and Eve, to take them to
23. Rumeli Hisar, Istanbul, 1452. This castle was built in preparation for Mehmet IIs siege of
Constantinople, to block food supplies coming down the Bosporos in Venetian ships to the city.

24. The church of the Intercession on the Nerl, Vladimir, c. 1160. This is a particularly attractive
example of the way Russian rulers adopted and adapted Byzantine styles to produce an architecture
all their own. It was built outside the town of Vladimir by Prince Andrey Bogolyubskiy (115774).
25. St Anne teaching her daughter the Virgin Mary to read, French manuscript, 1430s. This was
a common scene in late-medieval illuminated manuscript books, and is a marker of a widespread
assumption in the period both that some laywomen could be literate and that, when they were, it
was they who taught reading to their children.
26. Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of good government in the city, Siena, 133839. This fresco, appropriately located in Sienas city hall, shows an idealised
image of how a well-governed town should look, with a shoe shop, teaching, much movement of goods and (less plausibly) women dancing in the street.
27. Egil Skallagrimsson, Icelandic manuscript, seventeenth century. Egil, a late-tenth-
century Icelandic poet of high quality (we have some of his poems), was also a violent and
sarcastic troublemaker with a very large skull. This early modern image shows what
Icelanders of the time thought a peasant hero should look like.
28. The belfry, Bruges, 1480s. This phallic image of civic pride, topping the covered market in
Bruges main market square, was begun in the thirteenth century in wood, with the octagon at the
top being added at the end of the fifteenth.

29. Charles bridge, Prague, late fourteenth century. This bridge, for long the only one over the river
Vltava which divides Prague, was rebuilt on a massive scale by the sculptor and architect Peter
Parler for the emperor Charles IV. The Old Town bridge tower in the picture is his too, and is a
good example of Bohemian secular gothic. The swans are recent.
30. Patio de las Doncellas, Alcazar, Seville, 1360s. After the Castilian conquest of most of al-
Andalus, many Muslim Spanish artistic traditions (most visible in the Alhambra in Granada) were
taken into the rest of Spain. The Alcazar (the royal palace) of Seville is a particularly good example,
using Muslim styles very extensively, mixing them with Christian ones.
31. Enea Silvio Piccolomini sets out for the Council of Basel, 1500s. This is at once a classic
Renaissance seascape and a scene in the life of a Senese intellectual who became Pope Pius II
(145864). The frescoes of Piuss life, by Pinturicchio, were commissioned by a nephew of Enea
Silvio who also became pope briefly, as Pius III, in 1503. Enea Silvio made his name at the Council
of Basel, which explains the choice of this scene, even if it recalls a defiantly non-papal council.
32. The main square of Pienza, Tuscany, 145962. Pius II was born in Corsignano, a small village
in southern Tuscany. As pope, he made it a city and renamed it after himself, as Pienza, and had it
decorated with large-scale and state-of-the-art Renaissance buildings, as would befit a far larger
city the open countryside can here be seen behind the cathedral.
chapter one

A new look at the middle ages

This book is about change. What we call the medieval period, or the middle
ages, lasted a thousand years, from 500 to 1500; and Europe, which is the
subject of this book, was a very different place at the end of this period from
what it had been at the beginning. The Roman empire dominated the start of
the period, unifying half of Europe but dividing it sharply from the other half;
a millennium later, Europe had taken the complicated shape it has kept since,
with a majority of the independent states of the present recognisable in some
form or other. My aim in the book is to show how this change, and many others,
happened, and how far they are important. But it is not focused on outcomes.
Many writers about the middle ages have been preoccupied with the origins of
those nation-states, or with other aspects of what they see as modernity, and
for them it is these outcomes which give meaning to the period. This for me is
seriously mistaken. History is not teleological: that is to say, historical develop-
ment does not go to; it goes from. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned, the
medieval period, full of energy as it was, is interesting in and for itself; it does
not need to be validated by any subsequent developments. I hope that this
book will make that interest clear.
This does not, however, mean that medieval European history simply
consisted of swirling patterns of events, which had no structure at all except as
part of some randomly selected millennium. Far from it. The middle ages had
some clearly marked moments of change; it is these which give form to the
period. The fall of the Roman empire in the west in the fifth century, the crisis
of the eastern empire when it confronted the rise of Islam in the seventh, the
forcefulness of the Carolingian experiment in very large-scale moralised
government in the late eighth and ninth, the expansion of Christianity in
northern and eastern Europe in (especially) the tenth, the radical decentralisa-
tion of political power in the west in the eleventh, the demographic and
economic expansion of the tenth to thirteenth, the reconstruction of political

2 medieval europe

and religious power in the west in the twelfth and thirteenth, the eclipse of
Byzantium in the same period, the Black Death and the development of state
structures in the fourteenth, and the emergence of a wider popular engage-
ment with the public sphere in the late fourteenth and fifteenth: these are in my
view those major moments of change, and they have a chapter each in this
book. Linking all of these turning points was a set of structural developments:
among others, the retreat and reinvention of concepts of public power, the shift
in the balance of the resources of political systems from taxation to landowning
and back again, the changing impact of the use of writing on political culture,
and the growth in the second half of the middle ages of formalised and bounded
patterns of local power and identity, which transformed the ways rulers and the
people they ruled dealt with each other. These will be at the centre of this book
too. A book of this length cannot delve into the microhistory of societies or
cultures in any detail, nor, for that matter, provide detailed country-by-country
narratives of events. This is an interpretation of the middle ages, not a textbook
account there are anyway many of the latter, many of them excellent, and
they do not need to be added to.1 I have, certainly, in every chapter set out brief
accounts of political action, so as to give contexts to my arguments, especially
for readers who are coming to the medieval period for the first time. But my
intention is to concentrate on the moments of change and the overarching
structures, to show what, in my view, most characterised the medieval period
and makes it interesting; and they are the basic underpinnings of what follows.
My list of moments of change also presents a different storyline from that
which appears, whether explicitly or implicitly, in all too many other accounts
of the European middle ages. A very common narrative, even today, sees
Europe emerging from degradation with the eleventh-century Gregorian
reform, from ignorance with the twelfth-century Renaissance, from poverty
with Flemish cloth-making and Venetian shipping, from political weakness
with the (nation-)state-building of Henry II and Edward I in England, Philip II
and Louis IX in France, Alfonso VI and Ferdinand III in Castile, to reach its
apex in the high medieval twelfth and thirteenth centuries with crusades,
chivalry, gothic cathedrals, papal monarchy, the university of Paris and the
Champagne fairs; by contrast, the post-1350 period sees a waning, with plague,
war, schism and cultural insecurity, until humanism and radical church reform
sort matters out again. That narrative will not be found in this book. It misrep-
resents the late middle ages, and excludes the early middle ages and Byzantium
entirely; furthermore, far too much of it is a product of that desire to make the
medieval period, at least after 1050, really part of modernity, which I have
already criticised. It is also the hidden heir of the old desire for history to provide
A new look at the middle ages 3

moral lessons, periods to admire, heroes and villains, which historians say they
have got beyond but often have not.
That moralism, for many, derives from the word medieval itself. The word
has a curious history; it was a negative word from the start, and has often
remained one. From the Roman republic onwards, people regularly referred to
themselves as modern moderni in Latin and to forebears as antiqui,
ancient. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, a handful of intel-
lectuals, whom we call humanists, began to restrict the word ancient to the
classical writers of the Roman empire and its predecessors, whom they saw as
their true forebears, with the supposedly inferior writers of the intervening
millennium relegated to what was increasingly, by the seventeenth century,
called the middle age, the medium aevum, hence medieval. This usage was
picked up above all in the nineteenth century, and it then spread to everything
else: medieval government, the economy, the church, and so on, to be set
against the concept, also nineteenth-century, of the Renaissance, when
modern history supposedly started.2 The medieval period could thus be seen
as a random invention, a confidence trick perpetrated on the future by a few
scholars. But it has become a powerful image, as more and more layers of
modernity have built up.
Once history-writing became more professionalised, from the 1880s
onwards, and period specialisms developed, the medieval past began to gain a
more positive image too. Some of it was somewhat defensive, as for example in
the claims of scholars of different medieval centuries for renaissances of their
own, which might legitimate their period in the eyes of contemptuous moderns,
the twelfth-century Renaissance again, or the Carolingian Renaissance. Some
of it was very enthusiastic and sometimes fervent, as Catholic historians
extolled the religious purity of the middle ages, or nationalist historians focused
on the always-medieval roots of the always-superior identity of their own
countries. The medieval period, a long time ago and in some places poorly
documented, becomes here the imagined origin of any number of twentieth-
century desires, and as fictional as the rhetoric of any humanist. But there was
also a century and more of hard empirical work, which has allowed the
complexity and fascination of the medieval millennium to be recognised,
more and more clearly. Medieval historians often owe more to the preoccupa-
tions of nationalist historiography than they realise; it is still true that English
historians are more prone to see the growth of the English state as a central
theme the first nation-state in Europe, a mark of English exceptionalism
and the Germans worry at the Sonderweg, the special path that prevented such
a state forming in their country; whereas Italian historians regard the break-up
4 medieval europe

of the kingdom of Italy with equanimity, because it meant autonomy for Italys
cities, and thus the civic culture which brought with it the (to them very Italian)
Renaissance.3 But the depth and complexity of medieval scholarship by now is
sufficiently great that there are also alternatives to these views, and we can get
around them more easily.
That solves one problem, then; but another appears. If we no longer imagine
the middle ages to be a long dark period of random violence, ignorance and
superstition, then what differentiates this time from before and after? The start
of the period is to an extent easier, because it is conventionally attached to the
political crises which came with the fall of the western Roman empire in the
fifth century, hence the rough date of 500 for the ancientmedieval divide:
whether or not one sees the Roman empire as somehow better than the
western successor states, the latter were certainly more fragmented, structurally
weaker, economically simpler. The break is complicated by the long survival of
the eastern Roman empire, which we now call Byzantium; as a result, in south-
eastern Europe 500 is no dividing line at all. Indeed, the break even in the west
only affected a handful of todays European nations, France, Spain, Italy and
southern Britain being the largest, for the Roman empire never extended to
Ireland, Scandinavia, most of Germany or most of the Slavic-speaking coun-
tries. It is also complicated by the success of the last generation of historians in
showing that there were strong continuities across the divide at 500, in cultural
practices in particular religious assumptions, the imagery of public power
which might make a late late antiquity survive for a long time, for some to 800,
for some to the eleventh century. Here the relationship between change and
stability nuances the sharpness of the break when the empire broke up. But the
half century either side of 500 still remains a convenient starting point, and, for
me at least, a marker of strong change at too many levels to ignore.
The year 1500 (or, again, the half-century either side of it) is harder: less
changed then, or, at least, the supposed markers of the beginning of the modern
period were not all particularly significant. The final fall of Byzantium to the
Ottoman Turks in 1453 was not so world-shattering, for that once-large empire
was by now reduced to small scattered provinces in what is now Greece and
Turkey, and anyway the Ottomans carried on Byzantine political structures
pretty effectively. The discovery of America by Columbus or, better, the
conquest of its major states by Spanish adventurers in the 1520s and 1530s was
certainly catastrophic for Americans, but its effect on Europe (outside Spain)
took a long time to become substantial. The humanist movement that lies at
the intellectual core of the Renaissance seems increasingly medieval in style.
We are left with the Protestant Reformation, again above all in the 1520s1530s
A new look at the middle ages 5

(with a Catholic Counter-Reformation later in the century), as a religious and

cultural shift which split western and central Europe into two and created two
often opposing blocks, each with steadily diverging political and cultural prac-
tices, which still exist. That certainly was a major, and relatively sudden, break,
even if it had little effect on the Orthodox Christianity of eastern Europe. If we
regard the Reformation as the marker of the end of medieval Europe, however,
then we start the middle ages with a political and economic crisis in an environ-
ment of cultural and religious continuities, and we end it with a cultural and
religious crisis in an environment in which politics and economics remained
much the same. There is an artificiality here, in the whole definition of the
middle ages, which we cannot get away from.
This recognition, however, allows us to look again at the issue of how to deal
with the middle ages as a single bounded unit. It would of course be possible to
look for a better date than 1500 to end a study: maybe 1700, with scientific and
financial revolutions; maybe 1800, with political and industrial revolutions.
These dates have been canvassed plenty of times before. But that would be to
make claims that one sort of change was paramount, at the expense of others; it
would be to invent new boundaries, not to relativise them. The attraction of
sticking to what we have is precisely that 5001500 is an artificial span of time,
in which changes can be tracked in different ways in different places, without
them having to lead teleologically to some major event at the end, whether
Reformation, revolution, industrialisation, or any other sign of modernity. And
it must also be added, although I do not attempt the task here, that this can help
wider comparison as well. Historians of Africa or India or China in our present
millennium often criticise the medieval label, because it seems to carry
European baggage, and, most seriously, to assume a teleology of inevitable
European supremacy, of a type which most historians now reject. But if its arti-
ficiality is recognised, the medieval European experience can be used compara-
tively, to be set against other experiences in a more neutral and thus useful way.4
Actually, Europe is not a straightforward concept either. It is simply a
peninsula of the Eurasian landmass, as Southeast Asia is.5 To the north-east, it
is separated from the great Asian states by the forests of Russia and the empti-
ness of Siberia, but the steppe corridor south of that linked Asia and Europe for
active horsemen in all periods, as the Huns, Bulgar Turks and Mongols showed
in turn, and the steppe continued westwards from Ukraine into Hungary in the
heart of Europe. And, most important, southern Europe is inseparable from
the Mediterranean, and from economic connections, even when not political
and cultural links, to the neighbouring regions of west Asia and north Africa in
all periods. While the Roman empire lasted, the Mediterranean as a united sea
6 medieval europe

was far more important as an object of study than was Europe, split as the
latter was between the Roman state to the south and an ever-changing network
of barbarian peoples (as the Romans called them) to the north. This did not
alter soon; the Christian religion and the technologies of post-Roman govern-
ment hardly extended north of the old Roman frontier until after 950. By then,
the Mediterranean was anyway beginning to revive as a trade hub, and was as
important as northern exchange networks for the rest of the middle ages.6 And
Europe was never a single political unit, and never has been since.
People did talk about Europe in the middle ages, certainly. The entourage of
the Carolingians in the ninth century, the kings who ruled what is now France,
Germany, the Low Countries and Italy, sometimes called their patrons lords of
Europe, and so did their successors in the Ottonian Germany of the tenth
century: they were posing their patrons as potential overlords of fairly vaguely
characterised but wide lands, and Europe was a good word for that. It survived
throughout the middle ages in this rhetorical sense, alongside a basic geograph-
ical framing taken from antiquity, but it seldom not never, but seldom acted
as the basis for any claimed identity.7 It is true that, steadily across the central
middle ages, Christianity did spread to all of what are now called the European
lands (Lithuania, then much larger than its present size, was the last polity
whose rulers converted, in the late fourteenth century). This did not create a
common European religious culture, however, for the northward expansions of
Latin-based and Greek-based Christianities were two separate processes.
Furthermore, the ever-changing border between Christian- and Muslim-ruled
lands with Christian rulers pushing south in thirteenth-century Spain, and
Muslim rulers (the Ottomans) pushing north into the Balkans in the four-
teenth and fifteenth centuries meant that the neatness of a Christian Europe
(which anyway always excludes Europes numerous Jews) never matched
reality, as it still does not. In a very general sense, as we shall see, the second
half of our period does see Europe gaining some level of common development
inside the framework of a variety of institutions and political practices, such as
the network of bishoprics, or the use of writing in government, which linked
Russia across to Portugal. This is not enough for us to see the continent as a
single whole, all the same. It was too diverse. All claims to an essential European,
and only European, unity are fictional even today, and in the middle ages they
would have been fantastic. So: medieval Europe is simply a large differentiated
space, seen across a long time period. It is also well enough documented to
allow some quite nuanced study. This is not a romantic image at all, and is
intended not to be. But this space and time holds some enthralling material all
the same. It is my aim to give it shape.
A new look at the middle ages 7

A final warning here. There are two common approaches to the medieval
centuries: to make medieval people just like us, only operating in a techno-
logically simpler world of swords and horses and parchment and no central
heating; and to make them immeasurably different from us, with value systems
and categorisations of the world which are hard to grasp at all, which are often
unpleasant to us, and which involve complex reconstruction to create a logic
and a justification for them in their own terms. Each of these is in some ways
accurate, but both, taken on their own, are traps. The first approach risks
banality, or else the moralisation which results from disappointment, when
medieval actors apparently fail to grasp what to us would have been obvious.
The second risks moralisation too, but its alternative is too often collusion,
even cuteness, with the historian-as-anthropologist focusing only on the fasci-
nation of the strange, sometimes on a very small scale indeed. I would rather
try to embrace them both, in a wider historicising attempt to see how medieval
people made choices in the political and economic environments they really
had, and with the values they really possessed, making their own history, but
not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have
chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are
directly confronted.8 Marx, whose words these are, did not think that such an
analysis involved collusion, and nor do I; but it does require understanding, of
the various actors in a very different but not unrecognisable world. As all
history requires; although it is indeed important to recognise that the 980s
were genuinely strange, with values and a political logic which we have to make
an imaginative effort to reconstruct, it is equally important to remember that
the same is true of the 1980s.

* * *
In the rest of this introductory chapter, I want to set out some basic parameters
for how medieval society worked, which will themselves help to make sense
of the different patterns of behaviour and political directions which we will
see in the rest of this book. In this first section I will discuss politics, particu-
larly in the central medieval period; then I will move on, more briefly, to the
economy and to some basic aspects of medieval culture. Not that all medieval
people thought and acted the same; as usual, divergences were huge; but there
were some features common to a substantial proportion of them, some of
which were simply consequences of basic socioeconomic patterns common to
the whole period, as we shall see.
Medieval Europe was not easy to get about in. It had a network of roads
inherited from the Roman empire, but these did not extend past the Roman
8 medieval europe

frontier, along the Rhine and Danube; the road system in the rest of Germany
and, still more, further north and east, was rudimentary for a long time, and
travellers kept to water transport and river valleys as much as they could. In a
world without maps, only experts could take any route-finding risks. Europe is
not a continent of high mountains, apart from the Alps; what was more of a
barrier was the forest cover of most of continental Europe, except Britain and
some of the Mediterranean lands some 50 per cent in what is now Germany,
some 30 per cent in what is now France, more in eastern Europe. The stories of
bold young tailors getting lost in the forests of the Brothers Grimm were not
fantasy, at least in that respect. In 1073, the German emperor Henry IV,
retreating fast from the start of the great Saxon revolt, had to take to the forest,
for the Saxons were guarding the roads, and travel for three days without food
before he arrived in settled lands again. And travel was anyway slow, even by
road. When the same Henry, by now victorious against the Saxons, had a polit-
ical showdown with Pope Gregory VII in 107576, the threatening messages
between them, which built up quickly to mutual threats of deposition, took
nearly a month to travel each way between southern Saxony and then Utrecht
in the modern Netherlands, where Henry was, and Rome and that was with
fast riders, the fastest means of communication until the railways of the nine-
teenth century.9 Landscape was a danger and an inconvenience; the romance
and beauty of mountain ranges were seen by almost no-one they were, rather
more, the haunt of demons and (in Scandinavia) trolls.
This wildness should not be exaggerated, however. It was there as a back-
drop, and sometimes forced itself into the foreground; but it did not stop some
European polities from being often quite large, and stably so. The Carolingian
empire, as we have already seen, stretched across over half of western Europe;
the power of the princes of Kiev in the eleventh century stretched nearly as far,
in what is now Russia and Ukraine, a land where, north of the open steppe,
forest cover was virtually complete. People did get about. Kings were often on
the move for their entire reigns King John of England (11991216)* travelled
an average of 20km a day, seldom staying anywhere more than a few nights.10
Large armies regularly moved a thousand kilometres and more, as for example
with the campaigns of German emperors in Italy in the tenth to thirteenth
centuries, or the land marches and sea voyages of crusaders, intent on attacking
Palestine or Egypt, which were, whatever else they achieved, at least logistical
triumphs. More slowly, substantial populations could move, as with the
German migration into large sections of eastern Europe after 1150. So: it must,

*All date spans given after rulers names are dates of reign.
A new look at the middle ages 9

certainly, be recognised that the European world was in general very localised.
Most people did indeed only know the land for a few villages in any direction,
usually as far as the nearest markets. A count, i.e. the kings local representative,
on the edge of a kingdom could often do pretty much what he liked for some
time, without the king being able to stop him or, sometimes, even knowing
what he was up to. The difficulties of communication always got in the way.
But kings, if they were effective, did turn up in the end with armed men (or
send other counts to take over), and counts knew they would: that curtailed
at least open disloyalty. And there were other techniques of government that
could extend the powers of rulers quite far, and quite solidly. We will look at
them in future chapters. Here, however, let us look at some of the basic proce-
dures of political power that operated across much of our period. I will focus
on a single instance, and then discuss its implications.
In the summer of 1159, Henry II, king of England (115489), laid claim to
the southern French county of Toulouse. Henry already held nearly half of
France, duchies and counties from Normandy in the north to the Pyrenees in
the south, by inheritance from both his parents and through his wife Eleanor,
herself heiress to the large southern duchy of Aquitaine; Toulouse was, it could
be argued, Eleanors inheritance too, if Henry could get its count to give in. All
these French lands he held from the French king, Louis VII (113780), to
whom he had done homage and sworn fidelity, promising to defend Louiss life
and person, as recently as 1158; but Louis, who directly controlled only the
Paris region, had no prospect of matching Henrys military power. Henry
invaded Toulouse that summer with a huge army, probably the largest he ever
called together, including most of the major barons from his English and French
domains, and even the king of Scotland, Malcolm IV, who had done homage to
him. Louis could not allow Henry to expand his authority even further, and
anyway Count Raymond V of Toulouse was his brother-in-law, so he had to try
and help him, but what could he do? What Louis did was ride to Toulouse with
quite a small entourage (and therefore fast), so that, when Henry arrived there
with his army, the king of France was already in the city, organising its defence.
Henry could probably have taken Toulouse, notwithstanding its strong fortifi-
cations that was clearly his plan, at least but his sworn lord was by now
inside the walls. As one contemporary source said, he did not wish to besiege
the town of Toulouse, in honour of King Louis of the French, who defended the
same town against King Henry; as another (who thought he was wrong) said,
he took advice not to attack out of empty superstition and reverence. That is to
say, Henry was stuck. If he attacked his lord whom he had sworn to defend,
what value were his barons own oaths to him? And what would he do with a
10 medieval europe

captured king who was his lord? So he did not attack, and after a summer of
ravaging simply retreated. Henry, one of the two most powerful monarchs in
western Europe, could not risk being seen as an oath-breaker, and preferred to
lose prestige a lot of prestige as a failed strategist instead.11
The personal relationship between Henry and Louis was what mattered
here. It was hedged about with ceremonial oaths, homage (the formal recog-
nition of personal dependence), and so on; and it was tied very closely to
honour. It was also tied to assumptions about lordship: this ceremonial was
part of the terms by which Henry, as a lord, held his dozen counties and duchies,
with their landed resources, from the king of France, in contrast to his richest
and most coherent territory, England itself, where he was fully sovereign. Here
we are in the middle of the world of what is often called military feudalism: a
wide lite of great aristocrats and knights did military service, and showed
political loyalty, in return for gifts of office or land from kings or lesser lords,
which they would lose if they were disloyal. Such men would often be called the
lords sworn vassi, vassals, and the conditional landholdings would be called
feoda, fiefs, hence the words feudal and feudo-vassalic in modern historical
terminology. Henrys French lands are often called feoda in contemporary
sources; Henrys barons, too, above all came to Toulouse as Henrys sworn men
and recipients of lands. As it happens, the terminology of feudalism has often
been questioned recently. Susan Reynolds has pointed out that military and
political obligations, or the meanings of words like fief , were seldom as clear-
cut as this, and certainly not in twelfth-century France. Many people have also
stressed that feudalism, not a medieval word, can mean very many different
things in the hands of different modern authors, and have thus argued that the
word has become so vague as to be useless. I myself think it is still useful, when
carefully defined.12 If I hardly use it in this book, it is only because I have tried
here to avoid as much technical vocabulary as possible, not because it is intrin-
sically more problematic than any of the other terms historians employ. But,
either way, the fact that Louis was Henrys sworn lord for his French lands, and
that Henrys own barons had the same relationship to him, was clearly crucial
for determining how Henry responded outside Toulouse. Lordship, whether
you wish to call it feudal or not, certainly structured this encounter.
One major reason why this was the case is that lite military service was
not, for the most part, performed for a salary. Mercenaries were used in the
twelfth century, and made up the bulk of infantry (including in Henrys army
of 1159), but cavalry and military leaders by and large consisted of men who,
even if paid in part as well, had personal obligations to either the kingdom or
the person of the king, or both.13 The Roman empire had had a fully paid army,
A new look at the middle ages 11

much larger than medieval ones and permanent too, and in order to do so it
also exacted heavy taxes on landholding land being the major source of
wealth by far, as we shall see. It was therefore a very coherent political struc-
ture, and the demise of its fiscal system in the west (see Chapter 2) was the
major reason why early medieval successor states were much weaker. The
Byzantine and Ottoman empires operated in a similar way, maintaining a
continuity throughout the middle ages in south-east Europe, as discussed in
Chapters 3 and 9. General taxation returned in western Europe too, even if on
a smaller scale and much less efficiently, in the late middle ages; when it did, it
both transformed the resources of rulers and brought new problems notably
the need for rulers to get the consent of bodies of aristocrats and townsmen
who were going to have to pay for the armies (or, at least, pass on the burden to
their own peasantry). We shall see in Chapters 11 and 12 how this changed the
political dynamics of the late medieval west. But in the twelfth century in
France, and for most of the middle ages in most of Europe, no-one was taking
a land tax on more than a small scale. As a result, armies had to be constructed
on the basis of the public service of landowners, or else by handing out land on
which military men could live; or, when mercenaries were used, by paying
them out of the landed resources of kings or counts, and from levies of money
from landowners in return for not serving themselves. In this world, a substan-
tial proportion of military service, and thus army formation, depended on
personal relationships, linked to the possession of land.
This politics of land was analysed in detail by the great French historian
Marc Bloch in 1940, with a subtlety that has not been matched since. (He called
this land-based society feudal, a much wider definition of the word than one
restricted to fiefs and vassals.) He argued that a land-based society implied a
fragmentation of powers: that it tended to produce decentralised political
structures, simply because (to put it much more crudely than Bloch did), in a
zero-sum game, the more you granted away land, the less you had, and your
landed lites in the future might obey you less if you had less to give.14 This as
we shall see was not entirely true, particularly in the early middle ages; the
Carolingians in particular, who did not tax, ruled very large-scale territories
indeed by any subsequent standard. But there is no denying that tax-raising
states are always much more solid than those based on the gift-exchange of
land for military or political loyalty. Salaried soldiers and officials are a safer
bet than those who are remunerated by land gifts; the disloyal and incompetent
can simply cease to be paid. A ruler whose resources are all from landowning
has to tread more carefully, particularly when dealing with aristocratic army-
leaders whose landed resources are hard to take away from them, if he (more
12 medieval europe

rarely she) wants to achieve political success. This marked out the majority of
medieval political systems.
We may seem in this discussion to have slipped from discussing political
activity to discussing military service. In our period, however, there was not so
much difference. Government throughout the middle ages revolved around
two main structures: the organisation of law and justice, and the organisation of
war. Political loyalty was inextricable from a willingness to fight; as a result, too,
the landed aristocracy almost always had a military training and identity in the
middle ages, which we shall see reflected throughout this book. Rulers, when
praised for their military success and their justice (including their ability to get
losers to concede, which covered both), were often regarded as the source of
their realms economic prosperity and, conversely, climatic disasters were
often seen as the fault of unjust rulers but economic development was seldom
seen as in their remit; poor relief was left to local communities and ecclesiastical
charity; education was privately paid for, and so was medicine. The restricted
remit of government in western Europe, and its close link to personal relation-
ships, has indeed led to some influential historians arguing that it is unhelpful
to use the word state when we discuss medieval polities.15 As will become clear
in later chapters, this is not a view I hold; I would argue that the public authority
of kings in the early middle ages, and the increasingly complex administrative
systems of the thirteenth century and later, can both be usefully characterised in
terms of state power. Accordingly, the word will be used in this book for most
European political systems, except the very simple ones in the northern half of
the continent. But their remit was restricted, however they are described.
Returning to Henry II and Louis VII: the politics of land anyway held full
sway in 1159. Henry was even about to abandon the last vestiges of a land tax in
England, which its kings, uniquely in Latin Europe in the period, had collected
for over a century.16 He may have done so to avoid creating opposition;
conversely, he evidently reckoned that, in the zero-sum game of land grants, he
was sufficiently resource-rich to be able to rely on the loyalty and gratitude of
his principal aristocrats, both French and English who were also the partici-
pants in his Easter and Christmas courts, and in the whole ceremonial culture
which had built up around him and other rulers, which had its own etiquette
and games-playing, and which helped to underpin loyalty.17 And he was, for the
most part, right. But even he could not risk cutting at the root element of what
he got in return for his generosity, that is to say the principle of sworn loyalty,
by breaking his own oath to Louis. This in itself shows that the politics of land
did not have to result in the cynical manoeuvrings of lords who were just
waiting for the chance to break away from weakened rulers. The obligations
A new look at the middle ages 13

associated with taking land, the honour attached to fidelity, mattered too.
Dishonour was indeed hard to recover from; it had to be handled with great
care, and much of the political dealing of the middle ages hung on how much
one could get away with before being regarded as fatally dishonourable I will
return to the point in a moment. Furthermore, in the twelfth century the rights
of lords and the obligations associated with oaths of loyalty were sharpening, as
both Louis and Henry knew well and used to their advantage in other contexts.
Other lords in the period might and did take chances with oaths and honour,
but Henry was too skilled an operator to take the risk. All the same, the power
relationships inside which these games of loyalty were played were entirely
constructed around the politics of land. If we understand how that worked, we
can get a long way in the understanding of the political practice of the European
middle ages; only the stronger state systems of Byzantium and the Ottomans,
and of al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, lay outside it.

* * *
As to economic behaviour: the main point I want to make here, which under-
pins the rest of this book, is quickly set out. Medieval political communities
based their coherence and their success on the control of land, as we have just
seen. The reason is simple: all pre-industrial societies are based on agricultural
wealth above all. There was nothing which one could call a factory in the
middle ages, or for a long time afterwards. There were craftsmen, sometimes in
large numbers, in the towns of tenth-century Egypt or thirteenth-century
Flanders and northern Italy, artisans who produced cloth or metalwork on a
large scale for markets across Europe, but they had access to much simpler
technologies than would the industries of the future, and, above all, they were
a restricted proportion of the overall population; under a fifth of the total
population of Europe lived in towns often very small ones after 1200, and
rather less before. (The exact figure is guesswork, for we do not have the data,
but this works as a rough guide; see Chapter 7 for further discussion.) There
was also mining, for iron, and to produce the silver for the coinages of Europe
after 950 or so, but the people engaged in that were a still smaller number. Most
people, over four fifths of the population in the early middle ages, not much
less later, were peasants: that is to say, they worked directly on the land as
subsistence cultivators, on more or less fixed landholdings and in stable settle-
ments (usually villages, sometimes scattered farmsteads). Agricultural prod-
ucts were most of what was produced by human labour in the middle ages, and
for that reason the control of these, and by extension the land that produced
them, was central.
14 medieval europe

But who was it that controlled land and its produce? In some cases it was
the peasants themselves, in those parts of Europe where peasant landowning
was substantial which was above all in northern and eastern Europe, particu-
larly in the first half of the medieval millennium, although there were owner-
cultivators in the south, Spain, Italy and Byzantium, too. Where states taxed, as
with the Byzantines and Arabs and, in the late middle ages, many western king-
doms and city-states too or else where rulers took tribute, less systematically,
from autonomous peasantries, as with the early princes and dukes of much of
eastern Europe rulers exercised a partial control over the land, simply because
they took some of its produce, even if they were not actually its owners. But
much of Europe was always owned by non-peasants: landowners who lived,
and were prosperous, because they took rent from peasant tenant-cultivators.
(Wage labour on the land was very rare before 1200.) Such landowners made
up the aristocratic lites of Europe, the militarised lords whose loyalty (or not)
to kings we have just discussed, and also the great churches lands owned by
churches could be as much as a third of the total land-area of kingdoms. Kings
were themselves landowners, and their resources were, too, unless they taxed,
overwhelmingly from the land they owned directly. The wealth of lords
whether royal, ecclesiastical, or aristocratic thus came from what they could
extract from the peasantry. They did so by force, and by the threat of force.
It is not that every bushel of grain was extracted by violence, of course.
Lords did not have the manpower to achieve such a thing, given that peasants
were in the huge majority. Indeed, peasants usually agreed their rents, and
lords often accepted that such agreements would regularly turn into custom,
and become hard to alter. But rent-taking was always backed up by potential
force, from the armed men which all lords could command; the moment of
rent-taking was often accompanied by armed men watching over the proceed-
ings (the taking of taxation, which tended to have less consent from the popu-
lation, even more so). And peasant resistance, which was itself sometimes
violent, for example if rents and dues were arbitrarily increased, was certainly
regularly met by force. We have plenty of accounts of the often repellent things
lords were capable of doing to recalcitrant peasants destruction and expro-
priation of goods, beating, cutting off of limbs, torture which in the case of
torture was generally recounted in tones of disgust by our sources, but about
which in the case of beating and mutilation the accounts are usually more
matter-of-fact. (The sources were largely written by clerics, who did not like
aristocratic bad behaviour; but they tended to like assertive peasants still less.)18
Again: this did not happen to most people; but it could, and peasants knew it
could. Violence was, that is to say, implicit throughout medieval agrarian
A new look at the middle ages 15

society. Peasants did sometimes resist all the same, and sometimes even
succeeded in resisting; but for the most part they were and remained subjected
to lords.
Some peasants were legally free, some were not. What freedom brought,
either in law or in practice (which were not the same) was by no means iden-
tical from society to society, but it was certainly supposed to allow free peas-
ants to participate fully in the public world, for example the assemblies which
were important in early medieval politics, and to have access to law courts.
When such peasants were tenants, freedom often brought lower rents, too.
Those who were unfree (called servi or mancipia in Latin) were even more
various. Servus meant chattel slave in the ancient world: many servi worked
on the land in slave plantations, even if these were relatively rare already by the
late Roman empire, and all through the middle ages there were slave household
servants in many societies. In the medieval period as a whole, however, most
servi were tenants. They had no legal rights, as such rights were restricted to
the free by definition, and they not only paid heavier rents but also often had
to perform unpaid labour services, seen as demeaning; but they had similar
tenures to the free, and our word slave does not fit them properly I shall call
them simply unfree throughout. There were quite complex pecking orders
inside villages between free and unfree tenants, particularly in the early middle
ages. As time went on, these lessened in much of Europe; the common experi-
ence of economic subjection became more important than strictly legal distinc-
tions, and the free and the unfree often intermarried (even though this was for
a long time strictly illegal). As landlords put more pressure on free tenants too,
both groups often ended up, after 1000 or so, in a similar practical legal subjec-
tion which is often called serfdom (from the French word serf, itself taken
from servus). Peasant resistance in the early middle ages was frequently over
whether free tenants were being pushed down over the freeunfree boundary;
by the eleventh or twelfth centuries, that resistance was more often over the
terms of the practical subjection which was by then more common (see below,
Chapter 7), and the freeunfree divide tended to become less crucial. But it still
mattered; in both England and Catalonia after 1200, for example, there were
free tenants who were not serfs, and the end of serfdom for the legally unfree
in the fifteenth century was a significant change.19
The dynamics of the lordpeasant relationship underlay not only all
medieval economic history but all sociopolitical history too; it underpinned
the sharpness of the boundaries of social stratification (see Chapter 10) and
it made possible the whole politics of land as just discussed. We shall see
across the rest of the book how its dynamics changed in different periods and
16 medieval europe

circumstances: how autonomous peasantries were on the retreat in northern

Europe in the second half of the middle ages (Chapter 5); how the nature of
lordship changed in eleventh-century western Europe, bringing with it from
now on many extra dues, forcefully imposed on local peasant populations
(Chapter 6); what effect the economic expansion of the central middle ages had
on peasant and lordly prosperity, and on how they negotiated the relationship
between the two (Chapter 7); and how late medieval peasant resistance, to
lords and states, operated, both successfully and unsuccessfully (Chapter 12).
But what is important to keep in mind, all the way through this book, is the
simple fact that wealth and political power was based on exploiting the peasant
majority. The whole economic dynamic of medieval social systems, including
every change which we tend to call economic development the increase in
the number and size of markets, or the growth of towns and artisan craftsman-
ship for largely aristocratic buyers hung on the unequal relationship between
lords and peasants, and the surplus which the former managed to extract from
the latter. Peasants do not appear on every page of this book, by any means; but
almost everything which does was paid for by the surplus which they handed
over, more or less unwillingly, in rent, and it is a mistake to forget it.

* * *
When we come to basic medieval cultural frameworks, it is harder to gener-
alise, and it is also harder to select. Here, I want to set out only three aspects of
medieval culture, which involved assumptions that were somewhat more wide-
spread across Europe than others: attitudes to honour, gender, and religion.
Each of them will appear in the rest of the book as well, and will be character-
ised in more detail later, with respect to specific regions and periods; but they
need some introduction here. As we have seen, much of the force of political
relationships in the central middle ages and also, just as much, long before
and long after was based on honour. It is hard to overstate how important
being seen as honourable was to all strata of medieval society, in every period
and region of Europe; including the peasantry, even if others often thought that
peasants were incapable of honour; including women, even if others often
thought that the honour of women was really the honour of their male family.
Accusations of disloyalty, or of cowardice, or of theft, or (if a female) of illicit
sex, or (if a male) of being cuckolded, were all threats to honour. If you were a
known thief, you risked death (theft, because it was secret, was in much of
medieval Europe seen as worse than a homicide which was made publicly
known); but, if not, you also risked becoming so dishonourable as to lose legal
reputation, what in the later medieval west was called fama, which in turn
A new look at the middle ages 17

might mean that you could not give evidence in court, or in some cases even
swear an oath. That was in itself a serious social disadvantage, as oaths
surrounded not only all politics but all judicial proceedings; thus, if you lost
legal reputation, you were in many ways legally defenceless.20
Males defended their honour against such accusations, or against major or
minor slights of other kinds, with formal oaths; but also, more directly, with
violence. Violence was indeed itself respected enough for it to be a strategy in
judicial proceedings: attacks on the property of others were a way of showing
sufficient seriousness that you might more easily get your opponent to court;
and if you did not defend your property against attack, you might be seen as
having less right to it. Peasants carried knives, and used them; homicide levels
in English medieval villages matched those of the most violent US cities of the
twentieth century.21 Aristocrats who were insulted in the central and later
middle ages attacked each others land and castles (the duel was less common
until the very end of the middle ages and after). Revenge killing was normal,
and itself honourable. It would be wrong to call most medieval cultures feuding
cultures; with some clear exceptions (Iceland was one, late medieval Italian
urban lite society another), most violence was one-off, and dealt with by
compensation and/or judicial intervention. All the same, if men came to terms
with money or gifts to end the sorts of sequences of acts of violence which we
call feuds, this might itself be seen as dishonourable again one had to be very
careful, when either beginning or ending cycles of violence, not to undermine
ones own honour. Even clerics, whose job was to end violence (and we have
many examples of them doing just that), understood this logic. Bishop Gregory
of Tours (d. 594), for example, who wrote a very detailed book of Histories of
his own times, gives an account of an aristocrat named Chramnesind, who had
accepted money to compensate for the deaths of his relatives at the hands of
another aristocrat named Sichar, and went drinking with his former enemy a
few years afterwards; Sichar, now drunk, remarked that Chramnesind had
done well out of the deal. Chramnesind then thought (Gregory tells us): if I
dont avenge my lost relatives, I must give up the name of man and be called a
weak woman, and killed Sichar on the spot. Gregory clearly approved entirely
of the sentiment, even though it was he who had brokered the compensation.
Sichars insult, essentially of profiting in a cowardly manner from his relatives
deaths, would indeed have brought death in many medieval societies; the
famous BuondelmontiArrighi feud in thirteenth-century Florence was said to
have begun in a similar way too.22
To repeat: it is not that the values of all medieval societies were the same.
The image of the medieval mind bedevils too many books, particularly those
18 medieval europe

which seek to argue that medieval people did not think rationally about some
aspect or other of society or religion; that is yet another argument which this
book is not about. Honour certainly had variants. It may have been generally
not at all dishonourable for a male to have illegitimate children (even if it was
a legal impediment in some places not all for the children themselves); but
it was altogether exceptional to find, as was the case in late medieval Ireland,
that it was dishonourable not to recognise anyone who appeared at the door
claiming to be such an illegitimate child lords, in particular, could accumu-
late many such children in Ireland, often on the basis of quite random claims.23
But at least one can say that the violent defence of honour was quite general-
ised. It was very macho, too, as the Chramnesind quote tells us directly; it was
about being male and not being female. It was also even more macho when
men were drunk, as they very often were in fact, many initial insults that
resulted in violence occurred while people drank. (The emperor Charlemagne
was claimed by his biographer Einhard not to like drinking; this claim is pretty
implausible in fact, but it was certainly intended to mark him out as excep-
tional.) Conversely, drinking a lot of beer, mead or wine was not only a risk, but
a standard element in establishing loyalty itself: if you drank together, you had
obligations to each other (that was true for eating as well); if you drank in a
lords hall, you had obligations to fight for him, and you lost honour if you did
not. There is a common medieval literary trope, and some actual cases, of
enemies being invited to a meal to make peace, and then being killed while
eating and drinking; it may have been a sensible strategy, for peoples guards
were down, but it was very dishonourable indeed.24 And drinking together was
itself very male; in many medieval societies, respectable women were rarities at
such events, except the wife of the lord and host, who was special.
These sorts of society would not seem to have much of a space for women.
And, indeed, gender roles could be sharply restricted; in peasant society, only
men were supposed to plough, only women wove clothing, a norm which
appears quite widely across time and space (it was a clich in China too). In
most medieval societies, women could not get away, even to a small degree,
with the sort of sexual licence accepted for heterosexual men; nor was the
world of violence usually theirs men fought for them. Women sometimes had
no public persona at all; in early medieval Italy and Ireland, for example,
women were minors in law, with men acting for them legally all their lives, and
did not inherit land easily. These constraints on women were however excep-
tional, and plenty of other medieval societies allowed female inheritance
equally with men, or female court appearances, or even (if more rarely) female
participation in public assemblies.25 We also find women exercising political
A new look at the middle ages 19

power, either for children after their husbands deaths, or more rarely usually
in the later centuries of the middle ages as heirs, in the absence of brothers.
Some female rulers, like Margaret of Denmark or Isabella of Castile in the
fifteenth century, were indeed highly successful. In the early medieval chapters
that follow, we will find a number of powerful queen-mothers too.
I will return to the issue of gender roles in more detail in a later medieval
context when we can, finally, say more concrete things about more women
than queens and top aristocrats in Chapter 10. But, to anticipate, I would see
the main difference between the early and the late middle ages, in much of
Europe at least, to be an increase in ambiguities in female roles, as society
became slowly more complicated; the legal constraints which sometimes
appear quite sharp in the early period seem often to have been more mediated
later on, even if female inheritance was never generous (indeed, it became in
some respects harder in many places), and even if the roles for women were
circumscribed in all periods. As they were also, it has to be added, for men;
men who genuinely were afraid of violence, for example, which may include
many of us today, had little chance of long lives if they had any military respon-
sibilities at all, and little chance of much social esteem in the average village,
unless they happened to be clerics and therefore to an extent absolved from
violent acts. (But many clerics fought in wars with some enthusiasm, it should
be added; conversely, clerics who actually were non-violent, or for that matter
celibate, were often viewed with a measure of contempt for their ambivalent
gender status.) As we have seen when looking at honour, the rules for male
public behaviour could be as coercive, although different, as they were for
women.26 But the most circumscribed roles of all were always female. The
medieval and of course not just medieval norm was male.
As to religion: it is banal to say that medieval people were religious, but they
were, whether they were Jews, Muslims, pagans, or else members of what was
by the late middle ages in Europe an overwhelming Christian majority. (If
there were any atheists, they almost never expressed themselves.27) That
banality is often associated with the power of the church, clerical preachers
keeping the laity in line with hellfire threats of damnation, and so forth. Such
preaching was, in reality, much more a feature of the early modern period, in
the competing Protestant and Catholic confessions; earlier, clerics were often
fairly realistic about how much they could demand of their audiences, and that
is when they preached at all for preaching, although it always existed, and
developed further from the late twelfth century, was not automatic in practice
by any means.28 But it is also the case that, even though churchmen complained
in every century about how little the laity followed the teachings of the church,
20 medieval europe

they could rely on the fact that their flocks fully accepted the basic outlines of
Christian belief. Admittedly, what the latter understood to be those outlines
was not always what clerics thought they should be. Clerics reacted to this in
different ways in different periods; in the early middle ages they characteristi-
cally criticised what they claimed to be pagan survivals, particularly forms of
ritual which seemed incompatible with Christian teachings; in later centuries
complaints were more likely to be about standard forms of immoral behav-
iour, or else, after 1000 or so, heresy that is to say, theological beliefs which
the church, whether Latin or Greek, regarded as contrary to church teachings,
particularly if they involved the rejection of the church hierarchy. The laity
were not always less austere in their practice than clerical moralists, it must be
added; the whole monastic movement, and later on that of the friars, was a lay
one (ordained clergy were usually a minority in monasteries, and, since they
had to be male, did not exist at all in nunneries). Men and women in those
cases autonomously chose an often extreme version of Christian practice,
although this was usually legitimated by equally extreme forms of obedience to
abbots/abbesses, and, through them, to the wider order of the church; it did
not involve, or at least was not supposed to involve, autonomous forms of
belief. We will see later, in Chapters 8, 10 and 12, what happened when lay
groups actually did begin to develop their own opinions about theology and
spirituality, particularly from around 1150 onwards. But what is clear is that
the Christian laity, whether or not they were well informed about the details of
doctrine, and whether or not they were prepared actually to follow clerical
exhortations, particularly over such deeply held attitudes as those concerning
honourable violence or sex, did indeed accept that religion was important, and
indeed all-pervasive.
I am stressing this, not because the point is contested by anyone, but because
some of its implications are not always followed through. Secular and religious
motives are often separated out by historians, and put into potential, some-
times actual, opposition. When aristocrats founded monasteries or gave them
large donations of land, putting their family members into them as abbots or
abbesses, were they doing it for the religious motives which their charters of
gift invoke (treasures on earth being exchanged for treasures in heaven, etc.),
or were they doing it because such monasteries could remain controlled by
their families and be a long-term landed resource, as families became too large
and divided? When kings put their own chaplains and other administrators
into bishoprics, were they doing so because they already knew how good these
men would be as properly moral bishops, or were they trying to shore up royal
authority in different parts of their kingdoms by putting reliable and loyal men
A new look at the middle ages 21

into rich local power-bases? When the Frankish emperor Louis the Piouss sons
forced him to do public penance in 833 (see Chapter 4), did they do so because
a substantial sector of the Frankish political class had decided that his sins had
become so great that they threatened the moral order of the empire, or was it
because his sons wanted to neutralise him so completely that he would have to
abandon his political power to them on a permanent basis? When crusaders
took the cross and went off to conquer Palestine in 1096 (see Chapter 6), did
they do so because they wanted, as armed pilgrims with deep commitment, to
take back the holy sites in and around Jerusalem from Muslim infidels, or were
they wrapping up a well-attested desire to take other peoples land with a new
set of religious justifications? When we face these questions, we have to answer
yes to both sides in nearly every case; but, more important, we also have to
realise that there were no two sides: the two motivations were inextricable, and
would not have been regarded as separable in peoples minds. Of course, some
political actors were more unscrupulous than others, just as some were more
religious-minded than others; but neither of these would have regarded what
we often see as two motivations as separate either, except in the case of a few
religious hardliners. The self-servingness of much medieval religious rhetoric,
particularly when it was the work of the powerful, can often be only too obvious
to us; but it was not hypocritical. It might, sometimes, be more palatable (to us)
if it had been; but such people, in almost every case, really did believe what
they were saying. We have to factor that real belief into every assessment of
medieval political action, however carefully and cunningly targeted.

* * *
These initial observations are just starting points for understanding what will
follow. The rest of this book will focus on the moments of change, and the
overarching interpretative structures, which I outlined at the beginning of the
chapter. Throughout the book, we will also see how these initial frameworks
can, must, be nuanced at every stage by real differences: early medieval prac-
tices were very different from late medieval ones, Frankish practices were very
different from Byzantine ones, and so on. It is these differences which make up
much of the interest of the medieval millennium. But the parts made up the
whole too. Medieval societies did indeed have parallel economic, social, polit-
ical and cultural patterns, which are worth comparing, and worth explaining. I
shall try to do as much as I can of that as well, inside the limits of having to
analyse a thousand years in a quarter as many pages, in the rest of this book.
chapter t wo

Rome and its western successors,


Why did the Roman empire fall? The short answer is that it didnt. Half of the
empire, the eastern half (what is now the Balkans, Turkey, the Levant, Egypt),
which was ruled from Constantinople, carried on without problems during the
period of imperial breakdown and conquest by outsiders in the western half
(what is now France, Spain, Italy, north Africa, Britain) in the fifth century; the
eastern empire indeed survived even the massive assaults on it in the seventh
century, as we shall see in the next chapter. East Rome from then on we call
it the Byzantine empire, although its inhabitants called themselves Romans
until its end continued another thousand years, until the conquest of its last
remnants by the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century; and then the Ottomans
used some of the basic fiscal and administrative structures of the Roman/
Byzantine past in their own state-building, focused on their new capital in
Constantinople, now Istanbul. In some senses, then, the Roman empire lasted
until the First World War, when the Ottoman state collapsed.
I make this point not to conjure up the image of a past which never changes;
there are always elements of the past in the present, but that does not mean that
huge alterations have not taken place they certainly did in the Byzantine
empire, for example. The point is a different one. When we are faced with really
big events the end of European peace in 1914, the collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1990 historians tend to divide between those who see the catastrophe as
inevitable, with structural causes, often long-term ones, which just happen to
come together in a sudden shift, and those who see it as chance, the product of
short-term, almost casual, political decisions; or else, when they are more
nuanced, between those who, in the mlange of structural and political causes,
put more weight on the former or else the latter. I tend to the structural side
myself, for the most part. But when we are looking at the Roman empire in the
fifth century, longer-term explanations for imperial collapse in the west do not
work so well, for they so transparently do not apply to half the Roman world.

Rome and its western successors, 500750 23

Some structural answers might still be offered: the west might have been or
become more fragile than the east, or more exposed to invasion; the trend,
begun already in the third century and fully established by the fifth, to rule the
empire in two separate halves for logistical convenience, might itself have done
harm to imperial coherence and its ability to respond to threat. Indeed, in the
context of the hundreds of competing explanations for Romes fall, each of
these arguments has been made by someone, and has some force.1 All the same,
in this particular case, contingent choices, sometimes simple human errors, are
more convincing. Our starting-point in this book is 500, the rough beginning
of the middle ages, so in principle we could skip the still-Roman west in the
fifth century as too early to deal with; but we have to step back a bit to begin
with, to look at some of these choices at least briefly, for they had such major
effects on what would happen later. All the same, one important consequence
follows from this discussion as well: if there were not serious structural weak-
nesses in the western empire in 400, say, then many elements of the imperial
structure are likely to have survived the fifth-century crisis. This was indeed
the case, and we will look at this issue across the rest of the chapter.
The northern boundary of the Roman empire ran right across what is now
Europe, along the rivers Rhine and Danube (plus, in Britain, Hadrians Wall),
marking a sharp northsouth contrast not just in political allegiance but in
culture and the economy, which outlasted the end of the western empire by
centuries. The Roman world had many internal differences, but on one level it
was strikingly homogeneous, held together by roads running between a
network of cities with often remarkably similar public buildings, largely in
stone. Cityness (civilitas), with all the undertones of civility and civilisation
which the Latin word still conveys to us, defined the lite Roman self-image; an
education in classic Latin literature (Greek literature in the Greek-speaking
eastern empire), and the ability to write elegantly, formed part of aristocratic
status. Quite as Roman was extreme social inequality; there were still many
slaves in the Roman world, and the differences between rich and poor, and the
snobbery attached to those differences, were acute. All formed part of the
complexity of the Roman empire, in every period. Now that the empire was
Christian, which it had become, at least in terms of its governing lites, in the
fourth century, Christian religious literature was added to the mix, and bishops
began to rival senatorial aristocrats in influence, but not much else changed
in this respect (few Christian theologians, for example, notwithstanding the
egalitarian imagery of the New Testament, ever thought slavery was wrong).2
The contrast with what the Romans called the barbarian world to the
north was considerable. There, the economy was far simpler, and so was local
24 medieval europe

material culture. Political groupings were much smaller and simpler too, and
often indeed very fluid, with identities changing as different ruling families
rose and fell. Immediately north of the Rhine and Danube, most of these
groupings spoke Germanic languages, although none of them, or the Romans
themselves, saw this as marking any essential homogeneity between them. (I
will use the words barbarian and Germanic in what follows for convenience
only.) Not surprisingly, barbarian peoples, especially their leaders, were very
interested in the wealth of Rome, and tried to get some of it, either by raiding,
even invasion, or by taking paid service in the Roman army. There was a grey
area along the frontier, more militarised on the Roman side, more influenced
by Roman styles on the barbarian side, as a result.3 But, broadly, the boundary
marked by the two great European rivers was a sharp one.
What happened in the fifth century in the western Roman empire, put
succinctly, is that barbarian incursions from the north, although they had
been a feature of most of imperial history, this time led to political breakdown:
armies which did not call themselves Roman took over the different western
provinces and carved out kingdoms for themselves. In 400, none of this had
started yet, except in the Balkans, where Gothic groups were trying to settle
and trying to integrate into the Roman army after fleeing into the empire
from attacks by steppe nomads, the people whom the Romans called Huns, in
the 370s. By 500, the Balkans, in the eastern empire, were under Roman control
again; the west, however, was very different. There, a sector of the Goths, called
by us the Visigoths, controlled Gaul (modern France) south of the Loire and
most of Spain; another sector, called by us the Ostrogoths, controlled Italy and
the Alps; Burgundians controlled the Rhne valley; Vandals controlled north
Africa (modern Tunisia and Algeria); a set of small-scale Frankish kings
controlled most of northern Gaul; and south-east Britain, a province actually
abandoned by the Romans already in the early fifth century, was in the hands
of tiny-scale tribal communities called generically by us (and perhaps by them-
selves) Angles and Saxons. There were others too, in smaller areas. Territories
of the former western empire which were not under the control of military
lites originally from outside its borders were very few and scattered:
Mauretania (roughly modern Morocco), parts of the central Alps around Chur,
and western Britain, particularly Wales, plus Brittany; none of these had any
link with the others, still less with the Roman empire in the east, and they lost
a Roman identity fairly quickly too, except around Chur.4
The Roman empire had absorbed invaders before; there was a tradition of
settling them in corners of the Roman world, preferably after defeating them,
and then using them as army recruitment grounds, at least until they lost their
Rome and its western successors, 500750 25

non-Roman characteristics. After an alarming set of largely uncoordinated

invasions in the decade of the 400s, the Roman leadership gained the upper
hand and did this again: the Visigoths were originally settled around Toulouse
in 418, the Burgundians near Geneva in 442, the Vandals in what is now Algeria
in 435. The Visigoths, in particular, were used as mercenaries to some effect as
well: against the Vandals in 417 and the Suevi in 456, both of them in Spain,
and against the Huns in Gaul in 451 (the Huns were used against the Goths as
well). The conquest of Italy by the Ostrogoths in 48994 was also an imperial
initiative, for they were sent by the eastern emperor Zeno from their settlement
in the Balkans to remove the leader of a Roman army revolt, Odoacer, who had
ruled there independently since 476; the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric, was
already an imperial general of some authority. Although, as can already be
seen, there was now a confusingly large number of barbarian groups, many
more than in previous centuries, this was not by any means a dangerous
strategy in itself, as long as the Roman leadership kept control of the whole
process. At the beginning of the century, for the most part they did. The
problem was the Vandals, whose confederacy had entered the empire from
the north across the Rhine in 407 and moved across Gaul and into Spain in the
next decade; although partially crushed in 417, they were not subdued, and
invaded north Africa in 429 under their new king Geiseric (d. 477). Their
settlement in 435 was by no means accompanied by military defeat, and their
new territory, not in itself a very fertile one, was right on the edge of the western
empires chief source of grain and olive oil, the rich lands around the great
Roman city of Carthage in what is now Tunisia. Why would they not want to
control that, and why would the Romans not realise it, and defend Carthage
better? But Aetius (d. 454), the military and political supremo of the west at
that time, did not do so, and Carthage duly fell in 439. That choice error
was one of the major turning points in the ability of the Romans to control the
terms of political change in the west. Without the wealth of Africa, the western
empire began to run out of tax revenues; without tax revenues, it was harder to
pay for regular troops which were ever more needed in the complex politics of
the period; without regular troops, it was more and more necessary to use
barbarian armies as allies, but harder and harder to control them.5
The balancing act of using barbarians but keeping the strategic upper hand
was not helped by the instability of politics in the fifth-century west, with
warlords ruling for ineffectual emperors and for the most part succeeding each
other by violence. Political leaders seem very often to have been behind the
curve, using the solutions of the previous decade to fail to solve the problems
of the present one. When the empire began to run out of money, it was also
26 medieval europe

complicated by a growing political separation, and rivalry, between the two

major western provinces that were still largely controlled by Roman armies,
Gaul and Italy. The warlord who dominated imperial politics between 457 and
472, Ricimer, was only really interested in Italy, and in those years the
Burgundians (Ricimers allies) and the Visigoths (definitely, under Euric,
46684, acting autonomously) divided central-southern Gaul between them.
Ricimers choice was decisive here. When, in the next generation, Odoacer
revolted in Italy in 476, there was little else to fight for, and Odoacer, rather
than setting up another puppet emperor, simply called himself king, nominally
recognising the eastern, not any western, emperor.6
I stress Roman choices more than barbarian conquest here. There has in
fact been a fierce debate in the last generation about how barbarian the
different Germanic peoples actually were.7 Most of them (the major exception
were the Franks) had spent some time in Roman provinces before establishing
independent kingdoms; they often wore Roman military-style clothing, and
had picked up other Roman characteristics too. The different sets of Goths, in
particular, can plausibly be seen as rogue Roman armies, with plenty of non-
Gothic members, including, doubtless, many who were Roman by descent;
almost all the barbarian leaders intermarried with Roman imperial families;
the Roman warlords (including Ricimer and Odoacer) were often themselves
of barbarian origin.8 Barbarian kings were mostly bilingual, and some may
have only spoken Latin. They all adopted every element of the Roman admin-
istrative system that they could. It was possible to describe them as Roman
rulers in all but name, as Sidonius Apollinaris (d. c. 485), a Roman aristocrat
and intellectual from central Gaul, did for the Visigothic king of Toulouse
Theodoric II (45366): pious (but not too much), careful in his administrative
duties, a serious conversationalist, a host at sophisticated meals, Greek
elegance, Gallic abundance, Italian quickness, . . . royal discipline.9 Except in
the northernmost provinces, they were all Christian, or at least as Christian as
the rest of the empire was (there were plenty of pagans still left in 400). Being
Christian was not in itself a sign of homogeneity, it is true the fourth and fifth
centuries were a major period of religious disagreement, with different parties
arguing over the nature of God, and accusing each other of heresy, Arians
versus Nicaeans and Monophysites versus Chalcedonians (Nicaeans/
Chalcedonians, the eventual winners in the Roman heartlands, are from then
on more often called Catholics in the west, Orthodox in the east) but here too
the barbarians simply took sides. The Arian Vandals, in particular, from time
to time persecuted heresy that of the Nicaean majority of Roman north
Africa as enthusiastically as any Nicaean emperor, and with the same laws.10
Rome and its western successors, 500750 27

This Romanising process made accommodation easier. What happened in

province after province is that Roman local lites, with ever less military
support from outside, simply came to terms with their local barbarian neigh-
bours, soon to be rulers, and entered the courts of local kings (as Sidonius did
with Theodoric II, although he was opposed to Euric), offering to govern for
them in, naturally, as Roman a way as possible. There was a rapprochement
from the start, then, nearly everywhere, including in Vandal Africa, where, for
religious reasons as we have just seen, there was greater tension than else-
where.11 The Roman empire had always been prey to army takeovers, from the
first century AD onwards; Roman armies had long been multi-ethnic, with a
strong element of provincials from frontier regions; the main thing that had
changed, so far at least, was that army leaders from the frontier, or just beyond
it, began to call themselves kings.
So it might be argued that what happened between 400 and 500 was not so
drastic, after all. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric (474526) ruled Italy, and
northwards to the old Roman frontier on the Danube; he gained a hegemony
over the Visigoths in Spain, and strong influence in both the Vandal and the
Burgundian kingdoms; and he had an administration which was hardly
changed from that of the Roman past. He could have easily called himself a
Roman emperor, one would have thought, and our sources often treat him as if
he had.12 After he died, the eastern emperor Justinian (52765) certainly did
not see the western provinces as irrevocably lost, for he launched wars to
reconquer first Vandal Africa in 53334, and then Italy in 53440. A revolt in
Italy restored Ostrogothic kings, and it took until 554 fully to subdue the penin-
sula, but by then Justinian had also occupied much of the Spanish coast as well;
nearly the whole of the Mediterranean was now back in Roman hands, leaving
only Gaul and inland Spain as major provinces outside Roman direct rule.13
But, however Romanised the first century of barbarian kingdoms were,
some crucial things had indeed changed, and would never, as it turned out,
change back. The first is that the Germanic peoples did not call themselves
Roman. They clearly saw themselves as separate from the Romans they
conquered and ruled, and were in this respect quite unlike any warlords and
coup leaders of the past, including Ricimer and other generals in the fifth
century whose barbarian relatives we can track. It is true that the defeated
Ostrogoths and Vandals seem to have been absorbed back into Roman provin-
cial society, for they do not appear again in our sources the same is true of
nearly all barbarian peoples which were conquered by others but no
successful Germanic lite ever came to see itself as Roman; indeed, in long-
lasting kingdoms like the Visigoths in Spain and the Franks in Gaul, the reverse
28 medieval europe

happened, and Romans began to see themselves as Goths and Franks. Identities
changed, that is to say, and being Roman was no longer the secure marker of
status and culture which it had been for centuries.14 The second shift is that the
old unity of the west, everywhere from Hadrians Wall to the Sahara, had
vanished for ever. Even Justinian did not conquer the whole Mediterranean (he
did not attack the coast of Gaul, and had only intermittent hegemony in
Mauretania), and no-one has since. Separate political systems emerged, with
separate political foci, the Paris region for the early Franks (that centrality, new
in around 500, has never since gone away), Toledo in central Spain for the
Visigoths, the PaviaMilan region for the next invaders, the Lombards in Italy,
who arrived in 56869, after Justinians reconquest.15 All three of these central
regions had been marginal for the Romans; Milan had at least been a capital in
the fourth century, but Rome and Ravenna were the main centres for late
Roman government in Italy.
The third major change was arguably the most important. The Roman
empire was governed by a complex bureaucratic structure, paid for by a sophis-
ticated fiscal system, which involved many taxes, but above all a complex and
heavy land tax. This system worked, even if it was amazingly corrupt, unpop-
ular, and prone to abuse; we have much legislation from emperors who were
concerned that the traditional tax collectors, city councillors, were not doing
their job, which might imply that tax was not effectively collected, but it was
certainly carefully controlled and policed we have, for example, records from
Italy and Egypt of the systematic recording of land transfers, so that the state
would be able to tax the new owner accurately, and Egyptian documents also
show that even rich and powerful landowners did indeed pay their taxes. This
fiscal system was largely used to pay the army, easily the Roman states greatest
expense (the civilian bureaucracy came a distant second), and this meant that
money and goods regularly moved north across the Mediterranean from rich
southern provinces such as Africa and Egypt, to the northern frontier regions
where armies mostly were located, plus to Rome and Constantinople, capital
cities which were kept large for symbolic reasons and largely fed by the state.
The paid army was partially separate from the other major set of lites, the
imperial (senatorial) aristocracy and the provincial and urban leadership of
every part of the empire, who were landowners above all else, and also civilian.
The fiscal system thus underpinned the whole Roman state, and was not at
any risk at the start of the fifth century. When, however, the empire in the west
was divided into kingdoms, tax revenues ceased abruptly to be moved around,
with serious effects on Rome as a city, and on many northern armies.
Furthermore, the new Germanic lites had different aims from the rebellious
Rome and its western successors, 500750 29

Roman senior officers of the past. The latter had mostly just wanted higher pay,
to go with their claims for political power; but their Germanic successors
wanted something different: to be landowners, like the provincial lites they
were now dominating and living beside. This very Roman desire had a very
un-Roman effect: it became less and less necessary to pay the now landed army.
Tax rgimes themselves became less necessary as a result, and since they were
both disliked and complex to collect, could eventually shrivel away. Barbarian
kings continued to tax as long as they could, it is true. So much
is clear from the Ostrogothic governmental records preserved for us in the
letter collection, the Variae, of a long-standing senatorial official for the
Gothic kings, Cassiodorus Senator (d. c. 580), as well as numerous other casual
comments and complaints in contemporary chroniclers. But already when
Justinian conquered the Vandal kingdom, and even that of the Ostrogoths, he
found that re-establishing the tax system was hard and unpopular. In Frankish
Gaul, tax levels had dropped precipitously by the time the historian Gregory of
Tours was writing in the 580s, and kings can be seen granting tax immunities
by then as a standard political privilege; by the 640s the land tax hardly existed
any more in Gaul except sporadically in the Loire valley. Kings began to rely on
the revenues from their own lands, which were very extensive everywhere (as
imperial landowning always had been), rather than fiscal receipts, except for
tolls on commerce. The whole economic basis for political action shifted, from
taxation to landowning.16 This marked a break, not just from the past, but also
from the contemporary states in the eastern and southern Mediterranean, the
east Romans/Byzantines and the Arabs, whom we will look at in the next
chapter. The break will also underpin much of the rest of the book, for, as we
saw in the last chapter, a land-based politics is less stable and normally less
remunerative than a tax-based politics. We will also see in Chapter 11 that even
the revived tax rgimes of late medieval western Europe did not fully reverse
this shift. Indeed, it was a shift that only fully changed back in the west in the
very different economic world of the Industrial Revolution.
One important result of this was that the western provinces became less
economically complex. Even kings were less rich (although they also had lower
expenditures), with the partial exception of the Franks. Nor were the aristocra-
cies of the early middle ages anywhere near as rich as the richest senatorial
aristocrats of the Roman world, with their estates spread across the whole
Mediterranean (this, with political division, was by now impossible anyway);
we find, in most places, Frankish Gaul again excepted, very few landowners
with estates in more than a couple of city-territories. The tax system had
partially underwritten transaction costs for commerce in the later Roman
30 medieval europe

empire; this had gone, which meant that interregional exchange decreased
steadily, and in most of the western Mediterranean was restricted to luxury
goods by 700 or so. At the same time, since aristocracies were poorer, and,
since aristocratic demand fuelled much of the exchange inside regions, plus all
luxury trade, commerce at all levels lessened nearly everywhere. In every
western province, archaeology shows clearly that fewer goods moved about,
and that lite material culture was far less ambitious. This was so also in Italy,
where, even if the Ostrogothic state had had an unusually Roman form, the
Justinianic reconquest was devastating. In one province where the military
supply network was particularly important, Britain, the economic crisis was
precipitous as soon as the army left in the early fifth century, that is to say even
before the Anglo-Saxons came: cities were largely abandoned, rural villas were
as well, and artisanal production beyond the village level ceased almost entirely.
Nothing in Gaul or Spain or Italy matches that crisis, but each of these shows a
less extreme economic simplification too. The weakening of the wealth of lites
was not all negative by any means. If aristocracies had less land and wealth,
even though they still had plenty of tenants (many of them unfree, as we saw in
Chapter 1), landowning peasants with less, or no, dependence on aristocrats
must have become more numerous, and may well have been more prosperous.
But they bought fewer goods, and did not prevent the economy from simpli-
fying. Anyone who wants to argue for continuity between the Roman and the
post-Roman world must come to terms with these sharp economic changes,
which are revealed so clearly in the archaeology. Whatever continuities there
were (and there were many) overlay a much less complex productive and
exchange system, which had become less complex as a direct result of the polit-
ical break-up of the west and the move of armies to the land. These were not
structural causes of the end of the western empire; but they were certainly
structural results.17

* * *
The end of the western empire showed crisis, therefore, and sharp social and
economic change. But not only. In the rest of this chapter, we will look at the
three main successor-states to the Roman empire, as they developed after the
failure of Theodoric the Ostrogoths informal hegemony in the early sixth
century: Frankish Gaul from now on increasingly often called Francia, both
then and now Visigothic Spain, and Lombard Italy. (Britain will be left for
Chapter 5.) Through a discussion of each, we will look at what survived from
the Roman world, and what was new.18 But let us begin with some general
cultural and sociopolitical structures from the Roman past which continued
Rome and its western successors, 500750 31

almost without a break, and helped to define how the early medieval political
systems of the west operated: the patterns of Roman provincial society and the
Christian church, and the culture and values of public power.
The Roman empire had begun by being a network of largely self-governing
cities, linked above all by the army. This had certainly changed by the later
empire. City councils weakened and failed in the fifth and sixth century every-
where, both east and west; government became more centralised after around
500 not only in the eastern empire, but, counterinituitively, in the weaker
western kingdoms too. But loyalty to city-based societies survived everywhere
where cities survived, which was all across the west except in Britain, north-
west Spain and along the old frontier in Gaul and southern Germany.19
Coherent collectivities of local lites existed in the cities of southern Gaul,
eastern and southern Spain, Italy; they made up the surviving Roman world
that the new Germanic peoples came to rule, and, as we have seen, the two
sides could accommodate themselves to each other fairly fast. These city socie-
ties were by now increasingly often represented, both in internal politics and
with relation to royal power, by bishops. Christianisation was in effect complete
in the whole of the former western empire by 500; the only major exceptions
were the Jewish communities of parts of Gaul, Italy and, especially, Spain. What
local populations thought Christianity actually was is another matter; as noted
earlier, ecclesiastical writers, nearly all of them inflexible in their views,
routinely complained about pagan practices in local cults that is to say, prac-
tices which they thought were pagan, but which the populace doubtless saw as
a standard part of Christian cult, new year celebrations for example, or getting
drunk at church feasts.20 But what was certainly generally accepted was that the
leaders of the church were the network of bishops which the Romans had
established in every one of the cities of the empire, arranged in a hierarchy,
province by province, with metropolitan bishops (later called archbishops) at
their head, and looking to the five patriarchs of the empire, of which one
covered the whole of the west, the pope in Rome. This survived the end of the
western empire little changed, except that the influence of the pope was never
great outside Italy for many centuries.
Bishops were important in the late empire, but it was in the early middle
ages that they really became major political players. Cathedral churches became
rich in land, donated by the faithful, which made any bishop more powerful as
soon as he took office. Bishops gained further spiritual authority from the cult
of the relics of saints, which developed in the fifth century and onwards, for
they tended to be in charge of the churches which contained them. They not
only controlled urban religious ceremonies, but also became increasingly
32 medieval europe

accepted as local political leaders (in most cases they were from leading local
families); their appointment was often the focus for rivalry.21 And they repre-
sented their communities, to kings and other royal officials; kings took them
seriously as leaders of these communities, as well as being prepared to hear the
religious critiques that, as bishops, it was their task to provide. The new polit-
ical prominence of bishops was partly because secular urban structures had
melted away, and partly because, as a well-organised pressure group, they could
make their voice heard in the weaker kingdoms of the post-Roman period
better than in the imperial political system that had created them.
A good example of the activity and role of bishops is Gregory of Tours
(d. 594), from an lite family in Clermont in central Gaul but with family links
also in Tours, on the Loire, where he became bishop in 573. (Local rivals saw
him as an outsider; he indignantly rejected this.) Gregory has left us more
writing, both history and hagiography, than almost any other single author
from the early middle ages, much of it about events he himself participated in:
he gives us a uniquely dense, even if highly one-sided, picture of royal and local
politics, society and culture for the 570s and 580s. Gregory was a bishop in the
Frankish kingdoms, and, although a Roman by descent, he was loyal to the
Frankish kings (there is no nostalgia for the Roman empire in his writings, and
he saw his kings as Romes legitimate successors). At that time, however, Francia
was divided between three kings, brothers, then uncle and nephews; Gregory
was appointed by one of the brothers, Sigibert (56175), close to another,
Guntram (56193), and hostile to the third, Chilperic (56184). He was thus
hardly neutral as a political figure; unsurprisingly, Chilperic disliked him back,
and threatened him something which was seriously dangerous in the Francia
of the period, for kings routinely killed opponents, often in imaginative ways.
One of the major moments in their confrontations, in 577, is described by
Gregory with an unusual care for its setting: Chilperic stood beside a little
tabernacle made of branches, flanked by two bishops, with a table before them
full of food, while they ranted at each other; the visual recall shown here well
conveys how scared Gregory was. He much preferred Guntram, who was
happy to listen to him over dinner. Gregory was a snob; his enemies were often
(he tells us) people of power but low-status background, such as Chilperics
charismatic wife Fredegund, who became regent of his kingdom for their child
Chlotar II (584629). He was a great defender of his city, however, including its
tax exemptions, and a systematic supporter of its local saint and his prede-
cessor as bishop, Martin (d. 397), whose cult he promoted in a detailed account
of the miracles occurring at the saints tomb just outside the Roman city; as we
saw in the last chapter, he was also a peacemaker in local rivalries. He supported
Rome and its western successors, 500750 33

other bishops if they ran into trouble with the kings, including bishops whom
he did not like, and could face down even Chilperic in their defence (this is
what he was doing in 577). Gregory was also a moralist; it was his job, and
kings and other political figures knew that they had at least to listen to him. He
was indeed, despite having no military backing (a military entourage was rare
for bishops in this period, though it became common later), a power-broker
whom kings needed to take seriously, for Tours was strategically important and
often changed hands in the jostling for territory which these kings all engaged
in. The fact that he was also a good observer (his Histories are fascinating in
their detail) is probably a guide to his survival as a political figure as well;
however often we have to calibrate for his prejudices when reading him, and
however often kings did too, he clearly could deal effectively. That was what
bishops were for; and he managed to do it, in often difficult circumstances, for
twenty years, a long time in Frankish politics.22
The other inheritance of Rome which needs to be stressed was a whole
conception of political legitimacy which could be called the culture of the
public. Under the empire, the publicum was taxation, imperial property,
the bureaucracy, the collective good, just as the public sector is today. When
the publicum was no longer underpinned by the wealth of the tax system, this
concept did not go away. Kings across the post-Roman west used the term
routinely, to mean rights which belonged to them, plus their officials, law
courts, the road system, and so on. The difference between the public and the
private (another Roman and post-Roman word), so clearly maintained, justi-
fies us considering the post-Roman kingdoms as states, even if often weak
ones. Kings did not often in this period invoke the imagery of the public good
when legislating; that would be for the Carolingians in the eighth and ninth
centuries, as we shall see in Chapter 4. But the idea that royal power constituted
the public sphere was strong; and it could be meant spatially too justice, for
example, was done publice, publicly, in the sight of all.
The sight of all mattered very greatly in the post-Roman world, in fact.
Here, the publicum as the ex-Roman state melded with one clearly non-Roman
feature of all of the early medieval kingdoms, the public assembly. Assemblies
of the entire political community, national or local, were essential to legitimate
royal power, royal acts, and court judgements, throughout post-Roman Europe,
north of the Roman frontier and south of it alike: they were called by different
names, conventus or placitum, or in Anglo-Saxon England gemot, or in
Scandinavia thing, and they can be found in Celtic- and Slavic-speaking
communities as much as in Germanic- and Latin-speaking ones. They seem to
have derived from an early assumption, north of the border, that kings were
34 medieval europe

responsible to and legitimised by all the free men (but not women) of their
community, and that political practice was at its base collective. In a large post-
Roman kingdom, this was impractical (doubtless it was always in part pretence),
but even then kings legislated, at least nominally, in the presence of the whole
people, in common counsel with us (as the Lombard king Liutprand put it in
713), and the imagery of a very wide legitimising community, meeting publice,
was a common one from 500 onwards.23 This was not a Roman concept, then,
but the attachment to it of the Roman concept of the public was a natural one,
and each reinforced the other. Post-Roman kings may have been at times quite
restricted in their practical power, but the public sphere was theirs to domi-
nate, and this distinguished rulers fundamentally from alternative powers in
any kingdom. We can find this pattern everywhere in the west, up to the end of
the Carolingian period and beyond; and when the culture of the public weak-
ened, along with legitimating public assemblies themselves, from the tenth
century onwards, political power would sharply change in nature, as we shall
see in later chapters.
The culture of the public, assembly politics, Christianity and the network of
bishops, a disappearing tax system and the beginning of the politics of land, a
less wealthy aristocracy and a more independent peasantry, a simpler economic
system: all these features marked out the post-Roman kingdoms. So did a
landed army run by no-longer-civilian aristocrats, which meant that aristo-
cratic values became highly militarised from then on, and remained so for the
rest of the middle ages and beyond; conversely, the literary education of Roman
civilian lites became less important. Only the assemblies were not Roman in
origin, although many were products of the division of the empire and the
collapse of the fiscal system: that is to say they were very different from
the Roman past, however much they developed out of it. These were, anyway,
the elements that the political leaders of the post-Roman world had to play
with, and the parameters of the world in which they operated. Let us see now
how this worked out in the different post-Roman kingdoms.

* * *
The Franks were among the least Romanised of the Germanic groups that
conquered a slice of the Roman world in the fifth century, and they took over a
sector of the empire which had suffered particularly from the troubles of the
period, northern Gaul. They were not by any means united at first, and up to
the late fifth century there were several separate Frankish kingdoms, inter-
mixed with autonomous army leaders in the Roman tradition. The king of
Tournai, Clovis (481511), however conquered all the others, plus the Alemans
Rome and its western successors, 500750 35

in the middle Rhine valley; and in 507 he moved south and defeated and killed
the Visigothic king Alaric II, Eurics son, taking over south-west Gaul too. By
his death he ruled from the Rhine to the Pyrenees. His sons conquered the
Burgundian kingdom (in Gaul, only Brittany, and still-Visigothic Languedoc
on the Mediterranean coast, remained out of Frankish hands), and they estab-
lished a hegemony over wide tracts of central Germany, which had never been
part of the Roman empire. By the 530s they were invading Italy too, profiting
from the RomanGothic war, and maintained, off and on, some sort of
authority over parts of the north of the peninsula for a century. This record of
conquest across two generations is striking, and it established the Franks as by
far the strongest power in the post-Roman west. It also rapidly exposed them
to more Romanised areas of the former empire; already before his death Clovis
had become a Catholic Christian (and not an Arian, unlike the Goths) and had
begun to legislate in Latin. By the mid-sixth century, the Franks were less
distinct from the other successful Germanic peoples than they had been, and
the major difference was now probably the fact that, uniquely, they controlled
lands and populations on both sides of the old Roman frontier. Clovis was also
successful in establishing his own family, the Merovingian dynasty, as the sole
legitimate kings of the Franks. It lasted with only one brief interval for a quarter
of a millennium, up to 751; even if from the 670s onwards the Merovingian
kings were usually no more than legitimising figures for powerful aristocratic
supremos called maiores, they were still essential for that political legitimisa-
tion. Clovis divided his large kingdom between his sons, and this practice of
division (one which was unusual in the post-Roman world) continued; there
was only one long period of unity, 61339, under Chlotar II and his son
Dagobert, during the 150 years of strong Merovingian power, and the
Carolingians continued the practice of division after their takeover in 751. All
the same, Francia could frequently operate as a single power, with brothers and
cousins supporting each other politically and militarily, and was regarded by
outsiders as a single unit for the most part. This block of land continued to be
western Europes dominant political power until later divisions became perma-
nent by the end of the tenth century.24
The late-sixth-century kings we have already seen, though the eyes of
Gregory of Tours. However fractious and violent, they were hugely rich and
powerful, and no opponent of theirs stayed alive for long: all aristocratic
and indeed episcopal politics revolved around their courts. The power of
Merovingian dynastic legitimacy meant that kings could succeed as children,
and in the 580s there were two child kings, each dominated by their mother as
queen regent: Fredegund, Gregorys enemy, and in Sigiberts old kingdom his
36 medieval europe

widow Brunhild, Gregorys patron. Brunhild continued to dominate her grand-

sons when her son died young, and even her great-grandson, until Fredegunds
son Chlotar II, the only other male Merovingian by then, killed her in 613 and
reunited the Frankish lands. Chlotars grandchildren and great-grandchildren
in the 640s and 650s would have similar queens regent too. Ruling queen-
mothers went with strong dynasties everywhere in medieval Europe, but in
this period only the Franks had such a strong dynasty in the west, so it is most
visible here. It was potentially controversial, as female power always was;
Gregory for example, who was certainly uneasy about it, says relatively little
about his patron Brunhild as a result if you cant be nice, be quiet, that is to
say (perhaps the only time Gregory kept to this maxim) although he does
describe her, significantly, as ruling viriliter, in a manly way.25
Francia was sufficiently large that not only were its kings rich and powerful,
but its leading aristocrats were too. The richest of them had far more lands than
the lites of anywhere else in contemporary Europe, even the eastern Roman/
Byzantine empire. Frankish aristocrats took for granted that they were not
simply more powerful than anyone else, but also more virtuous; Merovingian-
period saints were characteristically from aristocratic families, and the fact that
bishops were increasingly from local lites fed into this imagery of sanctity as
well. Leading families also founded rich monasteries, to stabilise family power
and to attract donations from others, but also because the virtue of aristocratic
families made such patronage a logical choice. Itta and Gertrude, founder and
first abbess of Nivelles in what is now Belgium in the 640s, were for example
widow and daughter of Pippin I, from one of Francias major families, whom
we call the Pippinids. The seventh-century Merovingian monastic network
patronised by kings as well as aristocrats structured the rural political land-
scape of the Frankish world until the new foundations of the central middle
ages.26 Aristocrats were also turning into political players on their own account.
When Chlotar re-established Frankish unity, he only united the kingdom, not
its three royal courts; and each of these, particularly the north-eastern kingdom,
by now called Austrasia, and that of the north-west, by now called Neustria,
became the focus for aristocratic political manoeuvring around a leading local
aristocrat who acted as viceroy there, a maior domus or just maior Pippin I
was one of these, in fact.
Maiores gained further in power under the redivided kingdom of the sons
of Dagobert after 639. By the mid-seventh century they were contesting the
authority of queens regent when kings were children, and by now were some-
times even choosing which Merovingian to make king. They were matched in
their power only by a small group of really powerful bishops, many themselves
Rome and its western successors, 500750 37

aristocrats, such as Audoin of Rouen (d. c. 684), one of Dagoberts protgs,

and Leudegar of Autun (d. 678), who was brought down and killed by the
maior Ebroin. The last Merovingian who was a real protagonist, Childeric II,
was murdered in 675, the low point in this sequence of events, and after that
aristocratic families had no choice but to fight it out. The Pippinids won out at
the battle of Tertry in 687, and a Pippinid maior was always the senior figure in
Francia after that. That marked the end of the instability of the mid-century,
which had, in the end, only lasted a generation. But Pippin II (d. 714), the
victor at Tertry, had less power than many of his predecessors. In the period of
trouble, the Franks had lost hegemony over the peoples of Germany, the
Bavarians, Alemans and Thuringians, and also the dukes of Aquitaine in south-
west Gaul. Even some bishops were beginning to carve out semi-autonomous
territories for themselves. After Pippins death, his family dissolved into civil
war as well, in 71519, when Pippins widow Plectrude, regent for her own
grandson as maior, confronted Pippins illegitimate son Charles Martel; for a
while this must have seemed like the 670s all over again. But Charless victory
showed that this was not the case; as sole maior (71741), with only one court
by now, he reconquered many of the newly autonomous lands, down to
Provence; his sons Pippin III and Carloman I, later called Carolingians after
their father, did the same with Alemannia and Aquitaine. The Frankish lands
and wider hegemony could thus be reunited again, even after all the travail of
the previous period, which indicates that the Frankish polity was pretty solid at
its base.27
This solidity was partly due to the density of Frankish government. We
have more evidence for Francia, particularly in the seventh century, than for
other post-Roman political systems, and it is clear from that evidence that its
kings were active throughout Francia, intervening a long way from their polit-
ical centres and moving aristocratic officials around Desiderius of Cahors
(d. 655), for example, a major southern aristocrat, who went north to be treas-
urer for Chlotar II and was then sent to run Provence, before becoming bishop
of his native city in 630. Merovingian government was complex and document-
based, in a very Roman way; Audoin had also been Dagoberts referendarius,
responsible for the production of formal documents for the king. This partially
dropped back under Pippin II, and even under Charles Martel to an extent, but
Pippin III could begin the process of re-establishing it, and by 800, under his
son Charlemagne, governmental complexity was greater than it had ever been.
This was certainly an important parameter, and, to repeat, one with a solid
Roman (public) tradition at its back.28 But the staying power of the Frankish
political system was also the result of the constraints on aristocratic choices.
38 medieval europe

Aristocratic political strategies, however exuberant and self-interested, above

all revolved around the kings (later, the maiores), who were even richer than
they, and who provided both patronage (land and money) and legitimacy, at
least for the successful. To go it alone was for long impossible, and even after
the 670s only aristocrats with a formal regional command, usually dukes, could
do it. Aristocrats had a local base, certainly, and we can track regional rivalries
in many cases. But in most regions they did not focus on local politics except
when they were dukes or bishops, again with formal offices. Indeed, they could
move their lands around the Frankish kingdoms; the quantity of them was in
some cases more important for political success than their location.29 This
would not change under the Carolingians either, as we shall see in Chapter 4,
although, when it did change, the structures of political power would shift
The crucial point here seems to me this. The Frankish political system was
the strongest in the post-Roman west; although ramshackle and often violent,
it had staying power. Much of its strength came from Roman administrative
traditions, as just noted. But, although the kings were unusually rich by the
standards of the post-Roman world, Francia was not a tax-based political
system; its armies were increasingly based on the military entourages of aristo-
crats, too. Kings needed to rule with the consent of these aristocrats, and rulers
who did not do so, as with Childeric II in 675, and indeed Brunhild in her last
years, could be killed. It was normally straightforward to obtain this consent,
for aristocrats did not have an alternative political context to operate in, and
royal courts were anyway rich and attractive throughout. The dice were
weighted in favour of central power, that is to say. But it was necessary to seek
consent; the politics of land were already in operation, and, even if authority
was not yet fragile, it could become so. Assemblies came in here, for they were
in the Frankish world the locus of an aristocratic as well as a royal legitimacy.
Kings and other rulers routinely sought the collective agreement of assemblies,
like the 300 aristocrats who were called together by Fredegund in 585 to swear
to the legitimacy of her son Chlotar; conversely, when the lites of Neustria
were not invited by the maior Ebroin to the enthronement of Theuderic III in
673, but instead were told not to come, they concluded that Ebroin was plan-
ning to rule without their involvement, and they switched their support to
Theuderics brother Childeric II.30 This would remain a feature of the early
medieval west.
Visigothic Spain faced the same problems, but dealt with them in a different
way. The Visigoths had not yet gained full control of Spain when Clovis seized
most of their territory in Gaul, and the next half-century was difficult for them,
Rome and its western successors, 500750 39

with a very unstable succession and separatist revolts in the great southern
cities of Crdoba and, later, Seville, and even in some rural territories, plus the
east Roman conquest of the Mediterranean coast. Leovigild (56986) however
united nearly all Spain by force all except the coastal strip, which was not
retaken until the 620s, and the Basque lands of the western Pyrenees. Leovigild
saw himself as a unifier in all respects; he issued a law code which contained
the most Roman-influenced legislation of any of the barbarian kingdoms, and
he tried to address the religious division between Catholics and Arians, which
was less tense in Spain than in Vandal Africa but tense enough, by alternately
persecuting Catholics (particularly Catholic Goths) and trying to soften
Arianism to make it more palatable to Catholics. This latter procedure had
parallels in the east Roman attempts to bridge the ChalcedonianMonophysite
divide (it probably copied them) and was equally unsuccessful: religious divi-
sions over the nature of God were never resolvable by compromise. Leovigilds
son Reccared (586601) dealt with the problem by immediately becoming
Catholic and, at the Third church Council of Toledo in 589, outlawing Arianism
altogether: in future every Goth should be Catholic (Romans hardly appear in
the councils minutes; already, in effect, nearly everyone in Spain was becoming
a Goth in a political sense). The impulse to unity in Spain henceforth took on
a highly religious element, as it never did in Francia or Italy, and councils of
Toledo punctuated nearly every major moment of politics for the next century
and more they had reached the Eighteenth Council by 702. One result of this
was that the kings began to issue laws persecuting Jews, the only substantial
religious minority left, which became ever more unpleasant across the next
century these laws were easily the most extreme anti-Jewish legislation
anywhere in Europe until the latest middle ages, although the forced conver-
sion or enslavement which they envisaged probably failed, for there were plenty
of Jews in Spain in the next centuries. Increasing amounts of royal legislation,
however, took on the same shrill tone as the anti-Jewish laws; Ervig (68087),
for example, thought in 683 that unpaid taxes were by now so substantial that
they would lead to the destruction of the world; Egica (687702) thought in
702 that runaway slaves were hiding in every city, village and estate, and that
every free man had the responsibility to report them on pain of two hundred
lashes. Everything seemed so serious to the Visigoths; every failure in unity or
obedience had potentially fatal consequences.31
The sense of doom which one finds in, in particular, late-seventh-century
Gothic legislation has been taken too seriously by historians. They know that
in 711 most of Spain would be conquered by Arabs and Berbers after the
Visigothic king Roderic was killed in battle (see the next chapter), with different
40 medieval europe

parts of the peninsula flying off in different directions, and to them Spain was
already breaking up well before this point. Spanish archaeology, too, shows that
the economy was becoming very localised, variable, and in many areas fairly
simple; our few non-royal sources also indicate very substantial social differ-
ences between (for example) a highly urbanised Roman-style south and a rural
north with some very uncomplex societies indeed.32 As a result, the kings could
not maintain their fictional homogeneity from their capital at Toledo, and their
shrillness perhaps shows that they knew it. This last may be true, but it is at
least as likely that the kings were simply influenced by ecclesiastical rhetoric in
this very moralised world as well as by the rhetoric of Roman imperial laws,
for the Visigoths kept up a Roman governmental style to the end, with a careful
attention to legal form even when the actual politics were messy. In reality,
late-seventh-century Spain was very stable. After Reccared, who failed as did
all Visigothic kings after 507 to establish a long-lasting dynasty, coups had
returned to Spain, but were ended by the last such plotter, the elderly
Chindaswinth (64253), who executed all potential rivals. There then followed
successions which, although often very tense, were at least not violent; kings
henceforth died natural deaths, and rebellions failed, until just before the
kingdom ended. As in Francia, the aristocracy revolved around the royal court,
which was complex and more ceremonialised than elsewhere, and which, as
Ervigs law shows, still collected taxes; although we do not know on what scale
these were exacted it was probably small such taxation will have enriched
the king above all, for the army was by now unpaid, here as elsewhere in the
west.33 The aristocracy was, however, as far as we can see much less rich than in
Francia, and it is likely that the growing simplicity of the material culture found
by archaeologists reflects this too. The rich royal court will have been all the
more attractive to its members for that reason, not least because, given that
succession was rarely hereditary, one might even become king oneself. So, far
from showing weakness, our late-seventh-century evidence shows that, as in
Francia but still more so, one could maintain a Roman-style governmental
practice without the secure fiscal basis that the empire had enjoyed. These
practices were further updated, too, for the Visigoths borrowed from the
contemporary eastern empire as well.
Lombard Italy, finally, was somewhere in the middle. The Lombards
invaded an Italy still disrupted by the RomanGothic war in 56869, and one
which the east Romans did not defend well thereafter, but they were a very
disorganised invading force, and, after two kings in succession were assassi-
nated in 57274, broke up into several different political units, led by dukes.
They reunited under a single ruler in 584, and their first really forceful king,
Rome and its western successors, 500750 41

Agilulf (590616), defeated most of his rivals and established a capital at Pavia;
all the same, when peace was made in 605 with the east Romans, who had
maintained themselves in the former Italian capital at Ravenna, Italy was split
up into several different pieces. The Romans controlled most of the coasts, and
the major cities of Ravenna, Rome and Naples, but three large blocks of
Lombard territory, the central-northern kingdom of the Po plain and Tuscany,
and two independent duchies in the centre-south around Spoleto north of
Rome and Benevento north of Naples, divided the Roman lands from each
other. This was clearly a sign of failure, both of the Lombards and of the
Romans, and it lasted; Italy was never united again until 1870. Although the
Lombards slowly extended their lands across the next 150 years, they never
managed to take Rome or Naples, or to unify the three separate polities which
regarded themselves as Lombard, even under their two most ambitious and
effective kings, Liutprand (71244) and Aistulf (74956), who absorbed
Spoleto and, briefly, Ravenna. The Lombards thus never had the military drive
of a Clovis, or the urge to unity of a Reccared. Although they could hold their
own against the Romans, they were in trouble when they faced the Franks, who
were intermittently hegemonic over them in the late sixth century and early
seventh, and who defeated the Lombard army three times in the 750s and 770s,
culminating in Charlemagnes conquest of the Lombard kingdom (although
not Benevento) in 77374.34
This may look unimpressive, but actually the Lombard kingdom was also
the most tightly governed of the three main successor-states. It was much
smaller than Francia, so links between Pavia and local city-based societies were
easier. It was also less regionally diverse than Spain; the economy was certainly
more regionalised and simpler than under the empire, but we do not see the
sharp involution of economic complexity which we see in some parts of Spain,
and urbanism survived, if at a materially unassuming level, in most parts of the
peninsula. What Italy consisted of was a set of small-scale but stable provincial
societies, whose lites were city-dwelling almost without exception. As in
Spain, there was not any aristocratic stratum rich enough to make the kings
fear their opposition in any systematic way (except, as again in Spain, in the
case of successful individuals, usually dukes of one of the cities, who took
power by coup), and no member of that stratum would have had the ability
to establish a strong local power-base, given the number of rivals there
would have been in each city. The Lombard kingdom was very attached to
assembly politics, as was Francia, but here the main function of both royal
and local assemblies seems to have been law and justice, more than political
deliberation at least as it appears in our eighth-century sources, which are
42 medieval europe

much richer than those for the previous period. People appealed to Pavia, and
got royal judgements back, as we can see in texts which show the losers obeying
them, as well as in a substantial set of very detailed and one-off royal laws of (in
particular) Liutprand. There is an enthusiasm in some of Liutprands problem-
solving which one does not find in any other law-making of the period as
with what should the penalty be if a man stole a womans clothes while she was
bathing in the river and forced her to walk back to her house naked? (Answer:
he should pay her his full wirigild, blood price, as if he had killed someone,
for there would certainly be blood revenge taken otherwise.) This was a prag-
matic, fairly low-key and cheap way of ruling, but it seems to have worked. The
procedures of Lombard government were indeed borrowed from by the Franks
after 774.35

* * *
We have here got a long way from the complexity, the coherence and the wealth
of the later Roman empire. None of these states taxed to any serious extent by
700, and the patterns of government were much simpler as a result. The
economy was far simpler too (although northern Gaul maintained more of a
network of production and exchange than the others, which fitted the greater
wealth of its lites); in the Mediterranean kingdoms, it probably hit its low
point in the eighth century. But this was not an enclosed world there were
always interconnections, and movement, between the kingdoms, and the
Lombard kings went so far as to develop a system of passports for travellers
entering across the Alps at a time of political tension with the Franks.36 And,
above all, it was a governed world. All three of the post-Roman kingdoms used
writing-based techniques of government, of different kinds, which had been
inherited from the Roman world, together with in Francia and Italy, rather
less in Spain a tradition of assembly politics which had not. They also devel-
oped their own particular practices: in Francia, real deliberative assemblies, as
well as an effective and usually regular war machine; in Spain, a tradition of
strongly moralised and ceremonialised politics; in Italy, capillary government,
both proactive and responsive. All these practices, largely developments of the
earliest medieval centuries, would be used by the Carolingians after them, as
we shall see in Chapter 4.
chapter three

Crisis and transformation in the east,


While the lands of the former western Roman empire were facing the still-
uncertain prospects of the early sixth century, the eastern empire was having
an economic boom. An array of well-built stone churches were being put up
across the rich villages of the olive-growing region of northern Syria; irrigation
was pushing agriculture out into the desert fringes of the Levant; a substantial
new city was founded at Iustiniana Prima (modern Cariin Grad in the hills of
southern Serbia), the birthplace of the emperor Justinian (52765), which, as
recent excavation shows, did not just have an array of state-of-the-art public
buildings, but also a substantial population and a set of artisanal productions,
even though it was off the beaten track then as now. Justinian also in 53237
built the Great Church, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was the largest
roofed building to be built in Europe until the thirteenth century.1 A network
of commercial routes criss-crossed the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean,
bringing Gaza wine, Syrian and Anatolian oil, Egyptian grain and papyrus,
Egyptian and Syrian linen, fine pottery from the Aegean and Cyprus, to
Constantinople and to other major centres. These exchanges were under-
pinned by the tax system which brought food and other goods north to
Constantinople and the Balkan military frontier, as well as east to the Euphrates
frontier with Persia, but they went far beyond the tax routes.2 The greatest
wealth of the eastern empire was definitely located in its non-European lands,
notably Egypt and the Levant, but south-eastern Europe was connected into it
too, and, after Justinians western reconquests, so were north Africa, Sicily, and
the south of Italy (although not the centre-north, where most of the fighting of
the RomanGothic war had occurred). This sixth-century exchange system
would not be matched again in European history until the medieval high point
of production and exchange in Flanders and Italy in the thirteenth century and
onwards, in a very different economic environment (see Chapter 7). It does not
seem to have been affected more than marginally by the most serious epidemic

44 medieval europe

to hit Europe and the Mediterranean before the Black Death, which affected
Constantinople and other parts of the east in 54143 and may well have been
bubonic plague, like its more devastating successor.3
From the standpoint of Constantinople, then, the medieval millennium
began with prosperity; it is not surprising that it was also marked by political
protagonism. Benefiting from the secure fiscal base built up by his predecessor
Anastasius (491518), Justinian revised the entire legal code in 52833,
creating the corpus of texts which have been at the base of Roman law ever
since; reformed the imperial bureaucracy, legislating against the abuses of
the powerful; and fought wars not just against the Vandals and Ostrogoths
but also on his northern frontiers, and, with particular commitment, against
the Persians. He also ruthlessly repressed religious minorities who caused
any trouble at all, and many that did not. Justinian is, and was then, a contro-
versial figure; his uncompromising toughness and his huge ambition, often
expressed in original ways both Hagia Sophia and his legal reforms were
unprecedented in their scale produced critics and vocal enemies. The embit-
tered retired official John Lydos attacked the emperors chief reforming
minister, John the Cappadocian, in amazing terms, not just as the destroyer of
the administration but as physically gross, corrupt, greedy for food and drink
(his demands stripped the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara of fish), a bisexual
predator of extraordinary cruelty, lying naked in a bedchamber covered in
excrement all the tropes available to classical rhetoricians piled up together.
John Lydos did not attack the emperor himself, but others did, not least the
contemporary historian Prokopios, for whom Justinian was a demon and his
powerful wife Theodora a prostitute. And, indeed, the fiscal system was argu-
ably not robust enough to fight several wars at once as well as building on a
considerable scale, and Justinians administrative reforms did not achieve the
root-and-branch streamlining which he sought; his successors were far less
ambitious, doubtless as a result. But his reign certainly shows the possibilities
that a determined emperor could contemplate, and partially achieve.4
We do, however, also need to recognise that for Justinian religious conflict
was perhaps the most important issue he had to confront, or at least was
inextricable from the rest of his political activity. The Christological disputes of
the fifth century, over the nature of Christs divinity, had produced a
Monophysite community (who held that there was no separation between the
human and the divine in his nature) at odds with the views of the capital,
but with considerable popular appeal in the eastern provinces; Justinians
self-image as the Christian emperor par excellence meant that achieving reli-
gious unity was as important for him as it would later be for the Visigoths. He
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 45

was fully prepared to achieve this by repression, but he negotiated too

(Theodora was herself a Monophysite), and in 553, in a major church council
at Constantinople, he tried to create a doctrinal middle way which both sides
could support. This failed, however, and the Monophysites gained an organisa-
tional coherence during his reign which made all such attempts in the future
fail too; the Christian churches of Armenia, Lebanon and Egypt are still
Monophysite today.5
The reason why the Monophysite secession mattered more than the
ArianNicaean conflict of the fourth century had done is simply that the
Christianisation of the eastern empire was by now, as in the west, effectively
complete, except once again for the Jewish community. But eastern Christianity
was not exactly the same as in the west. The hierarchy of bishops was as active
in the east as in the west, and increasingly bishops were city leaders here as
well. Bishops were less prominent players in a wider politics, however, except
those of the major cities; episcopal churches may have been less rich in land,
and emperors were more powerful in ecclesiastical affairs than rulers were in
the west. The hierarchy of the church was also not the only basis for religious
activism. Autonomous monasteries grew rapidly in number, and were not
always as closely associated with aristocratic power as in the west; they were
foci for some quite rough-cut popular religiosity, and monks could be fanatical
religious police in places where they were numerous, as around Jerusalem and
in southern Egypt. Ascetic spiritual athletes, even if not so many in number,
were prominent too, as with Simeon the Younger (d. 592), sitting on his column
for forty-four years close to the great city of Antioch, who was locally very
influential, offering prophecies and religious advice even to emperors, as well
as miracles. Such ascetics were also unusually effective as exorcists of demons,
as with Theodore of Sykeon (d. 613) in central Anatolia, whose Life lists his
anti-demon achievements. Local saints cults, of martyrs of the early church,
bishops, and ascetics, developed as well; such cults were focused on their relics,
as in the west. Relics tended to be under the control of the church hierarchy,
but there was a bottom-up religiosity in the sixth-century empire which
escaped the command of any bishop, or indeed emperor.6

* * *
Wars with Persia began again after a long break in the sixth century, when the
power of the shahs of the Sassanian dynasty revived, particularly under
Khusrau I (53179). Since Persia was another powerful empire with experi-
enced troops, and since the Persian border was close to some of the Roman
empires richest lands, this was always dangerous. Justinian fought several wars,
46 medieval europe

and later, in the 570s and 580s, there was near-continuous conflict; it ended
only when there were two rival shahs in Persia and the emperor Maurice (582
602) backed the winner, Khusrau II, who made peace in 591. Maurice used the
peace to fight in the Balkans, where a new set of invaders had appeared in
Justinians time and after, partly Slavic-speaking tribes (the Byzantines called
them generically Sklavenoi, and I here call them Sclavenians) which were peri-
odically given coherence and logistical back-up by an ex-nomadic Turkic
people, the Avars, based just north of the Danube since the 560s. Maurices
troops, tired of winter war, revolted against him in 602 and marched on the
capital, killing the emperor and replacing him with an army officer, Phocas
the first successful coup in the eastern empire for nearly 250 years, but by no
means the last. Khusrau used the death of his patron Maurice as an excuse to
begin the war again, on a rather larger scale. When Phocas perished in another
coup, by Heraclius (61041) son of the governor of Africa, the civil war on the
Roman side allowed the Persians to break through; they occupied Syria,
Palestine and Egypt, the economic powerhouses of the eastern empire, between
611 and 619. In 626, in a notable military set-piece, the Persians attacked
Constantinople itself on one side and the Avars and Sclavenians on the other;
but they did not take the city. That was their high point. Heraclius, who was
behind Persian lines with his own army, allied with the Turks from the steppes
north of the Caucasus in 62728 and invaded the shahs political heartland of
Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq; Khusrau was killed, Persian power broke
down dramatically and Heraclius got back all the conquered lands by 630. This
startling military success however did not even last half a decade. Both the
Roman and the Persian empires were by then under attack from a new direc-
tion, Arabia. Muslim Arab armies between 634 and 642, in fast-moving
campaigns and successful battles and sieges, conquered all the provinces that
Khusrau had taken from the Romans, and not only: in the same short time they
seized Iraq from the Persians, and in the 640s the whole of Iran the last
Sassanian shah, Yazdagird III, was killed in 651, and by then his entire empire
was in Arab hands. These were conquests that were never reversed, and they
affected the whole geopolitics of Europe and Asia ever after.7
What had happened here, and what did it mean? Let us look at this first
from the Roman side and then from that of the Arabs. To the Romans, it was
the greatest single military disaster which the empire had ever faced in the
more than 600 years of its existence, and one that was close to incomprehen-
sible: for the Arabs had always been until then a marginal border people, used
as mercenaries at best, but no meaningful threat there was hardly even an
armed defence on the largely desert Arabian frontier. They could hope that it
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 47

would be reversed, but when the first Arab civil war of 65661 did not lead to
the break-up of the coherence of the new caliphate, and Arab raiding into
Anatolia increased instead, it became clearer that the new political order was
here to stay. The Romans did not understand what Islam was yet it was
initially seen as a simplified form of Christianity, not a new religion but,
either way, given the way east Roman political imagery now worked, this was
as much a religious catastrophe as a military one, since the victorious Arabs
were certainly not Orthodox Christians. One response was to shore up
Orthodox Christianity, as its internal enemies were beyond doubt the moral
cause of such disaster. The 640s and 650s were marked by a reinforcement
of persecution against everyone who did not accept the latest religious
compromise of the Heraclian period, called Monotheletism; this time, both
Monophysites and western Catholics were persecuted (and Jews too), and
Pope Martin I (64955) was arrested in Rome in 653 and, after a trial, exiled
to the Crimea for rejecting the imperial line. Another was to conclude that
the end of the world was this time really, after many false alarms, at hand;
the so-called Apocalypse of pseudo-Methodios, a Syriac text soon translated
into Greek and even Latin, was written in the newly hopeful years of the
second Arab civil war in the 680s and widely circulated. But the end was not at
hand, and apocalyptic imagery dropped back again. Interestingly, however,
after the moral panic of the mid-century, so did Christological debate.
Constantine IV (66885) formally abandoned the artificiality of Monotheletism
in 680, and Christological issues barely surfaced again. The new world of
constant defence on all sides seems to have reduced the meaningfulness of
high-level debate about the nature of God, and when religious disagreement
resurfaced, in the less threatened eighth century, the issues were by then
distinct, as we shall see later.8
In military terms, urgency did not go away. The Roman empire had lost, in
eight years, two-thirds of its land-area and three-quarters of its resources, and
had to defend the rest against a wealthy and active enemy. It had to change if it
was going to survive, and it did. (From here on, to mark that change, I will use
the new name which historians give to the still-Roman empire, Byzantine
from Byzantion, the old name for Constantinople, which was used in our
period only for the capitals inhabitants.)9 The empire achieved this by organ-
ising a defence in depth behind the Tauros mountains of central Anatolia,
running in a diagonal across what is now Turkey, with local army detachments
settled in the military provinces (themata) of western Anatolia, and living off
the land to supplement their reduced army pay pay which never ceased to be
paid, but was by now almost all in kind, as the coinage system had come close
48 medieval europe

to collapse in the imperial heartland of the Aegean and Anatolia. Given the
resistance which these detachments could put up, Arab raids, which were
continuous for a century, dissipated in the poor lands of the Anatolian plateau,
except for occasional organised attacks; the latter, however, could not conquer
Constantinople because the city was so well-defended to the west, and was
protected to the east from all but a sea invasion by the Bosporos straits, which
separate it from Anatolia. The last major attack was the great Arab siege of
71718, from both land and sea, which was announced well in advance by the
Arabs and prepared for by the Byzantines, but which was as much of a failure
as that of 626.10
The empire made it through the worst, then. It is striking and significant that
it survived such onslaughts when the western empire, two centuries earlier, had
failed against what were, in military terms, smaller threats. The reason is not
firm leadership; in the 640s and 660s, military and political leadership was very
halting and uncertain, and so was it again for a generation after Constantine IVs
death. In part, it was because the organisational infrastructure of the empire,
which had become well-developed in the fat years of the early sixth century, was
strong enough to hold, while adapting itself quite fast (the eighth-century
bureaucracy, by now entirely Greek-speaking as it had not been under Justinian,
was very differently structured from that of the sixth). The landed aristocracy
itself, now rather less wealthy, was absorbed into the hierarchies of the state, and
aristocratic families are hardly documented again in our sources until the ninth
century.11 Most of all, though, it was because the very speed and magnitude of the
disaster made it impossible to reach the local accommodations which had been
so common in the west; there were no periods of relative peace in which local
army leaders or provincial societies on the Byzantine side of the border could get
used to local Arabs, as the west Romans had got used to Germanic military
groups. Everybody knew that the alternative to radical measures was defeat. But
it is also significant that one of those radical measures was not the abandonment
of the land tax and the reliance on a totally landed army. The fiscal system of the
Roman empire survived, in a simplified form. Indeed, in some parts of the
empire in and immediately around Constantinople itself, and in Sicily it
continued to operate in something closer to the old way, on the basis of a coinage
system. This was enough to carry on with, and to revive when the situation of the
empire improved, as it eventually did.
The Byzantine empire in 700 thus looked very different from that of 600. Its
centre of gravity had moved westwards. Its political heartland was by now the
Aegean, looking to Constantinople itself, which, although greatly reduced in
size (it was no longer fed by the state), was still large and economically active as
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 49

a city. The heartland had however suffered greatly. In the crisis years, the
northern defence had entirely ended, and the Balkan peninsula was steadily
occupied by Sclavenian tribes, some of whom got as far as what is now southern
Greece; the Byzantines indeed only really controlled the eastern edge of the
Greek coast, plus some isolated cities up the western side and along the Adriatic,
which could be defended by sea. In 68081, the network of small Sclavenian
communities and Byzantine enclaves in the Balkans was further disrupted by
the appearance of a new Turkic nomadic group, the Bulgars, who had revolted
against the Avars after 626; the Byzantines were prepared (after defeat) to
welcome them in, to give some stability to at least part of the Balkans, and they
settled in the northern half of what is now Bulgaria, subtracting it eventually
from theoretical Byzantine rule. The economy of Greece and western Anatolia
simplified considerably, and most cities were abandoned except for fortified
citadels even if not all, and even if a certain level of commercial exchange
never died away in the inland Aegean sea.12
All this gave more prominence to the western lands of the empire, the
RavennaRomeNaples axis, Sicily and north Africa. These were, with the
exception of north Africa, much less affected by the Arab threat. Indeed, by
700 Sicily must have been the empires most prosperous province (Africa had
been finally conquered in the 690s). The network of commercial exchange
around Italys coasts matched that of the Aegean: much less complex than
it had been under Justinian, that is to say, but still active.13 It is thus less
surprising than it might seem that Constans II (64168) decided at the end of
his reign to make his capital in Syracuse, the main Sicilian city, although this
seemed too radical to other major players, and he was assassinated shortly
after. Rome, too, kept its eastern links for a long time. The pope, not yet the
formal ruler of the city but very powerful there, was still a patriarch of the
imperial church, and his views counted in religious disputes; he was also a rich
landowner in southern Italy and Sicily, so had substantial resources. Indeed,
the importance of the pope to the emperors increased in this period. Gregory
the Great (590604), to modern eyes the most significant pope of the early
middle ages, a major theologian and an active political operator, had little trac-
tion in Maurices Constantinople, but Martin I mattered very greatly to
Constans II (unluckily for him). Romes voice mattered when Constantine IV
abandoned Monotheletism, too, and from then on the popes were predomi-
nantly Greek-speaking for more than half a century, reflecting the large number
of south Italian and eastern priests and monks in the city.14 This Byzantine
empire, then, was constructed on a ConstantinopleSicily axis, not on a
ConstantinopleEgypt one like its sixth-century predecessor. Not surprisingly,
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its control over the northern sea route in the Mediterranean was defended as
much as possible against the Arabs.15

* * *
That was the Roman response to the mid-seventh-century crisis, then. That of
the Arabs was quite different, of course, as they were the victors. We cannot
look at the new world the Arabs created in as much detail as it deserves, in a
book focused on Europe; but we need to balance it against the Roman response,
so as to contextualise it; and anyway the Arab caliphates were by far the richest
and strongest political systems of the Mediterranean world for the next half-
millennium, with considerable effect on the European side of the sea for that
reason, so deserve attention. First, Arab success: it was the product of the unifi-
cation of Arabias numerous tribes, by Muhammad (d. 632) and his successors,
under the name of Islam. What form Islam took in its earliest years will never
be known, although it is becoming increasingly likely that its main sacred text,
the Quran, had reached something close to its final form already by around
650, as Muslim traditions have indeed always held. This does not, of course, at
all mean that its contents were widely accepted or even known, and, as with
Christianity, what early Muslims thought their religion was is likely to have
been highly various.16 But what was most important is that the Arab armies
thought they were united by common religious belief, at least long enough to
win their first victories and become united by common interest as well. Not
that religious commitment is enough to explain their success; armies do not
win battles if generals are inexperienced and discipline is weak, and the Arab
armies were not initially big.17 They were certainly well led, however; and, as
with the Germanic peoples two centuries before, it is likely that many Arabs
had experience in the Roman and Persian armies (even if the main Roman-
federated tribe, the Ghassanids, fought on the side of Heraclius). And there can
be no doubt that the stresses of the recent RomanPersian war, in particular
the destruction of armies on both sides and the exhaustion of taxpayers, cannot
have helped the resilience of the two empires. This is about as far as we can go
in explanation, however; our sources, although voluminous on the Arab side,
are mostly late in date and do not tell us more.
What the Arabs did with their success is better documented. Muhammads
successors, the caliphs (khalifa means deputy that is to say, of God), ruled
the richest parts of the world west of India and China; they had immense
potential resources. As far as we can see, they used them. From as early as the
640s, the caliphs seem to have decided that the Arab armies would not settle on
the land, as Germanic groups had done earlier, but instead were to be settled in
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 51

cities and paid directly from taxation the taxation, that is to say, which already
existed in both the Roman empire and Persia, and which would still be for a
long time collected and administered by traditional Roman and Persian lites.
The practice of supporting the army, the ruling class and the state by a sophis-
ticated system of taxation never failed in the Arab world.18 This had the signif-
icant initial benefit of separating the Arabs from the local societies of non-Arabs
and non-Muslims, who hugely outnumbered them, and in fact the Arabs were
never absorbed by them; it was the Arabic language and Muslim religion which
eventually won out, in all the areas of the caliphate except Iran. (This, too,
distinguished them from most Germanic groups in the west; in Gaul, Spain
and Italy, Latin-based languages survived, not Germanic ones.) Islam was a
minority religion until the tenth century or so, in all the conquered lands
except probably Iraq; all the same, steadily, at least from the late eighth century
onwards, a new Arab and Muslim lite culture came to dominate the major
centres of the Muslim world. This had some links to earlier literature and
philosophy (particularly classical Greek philosophy and science), but was
based by now on new styles of writing history, theology, poetry, geography,
advice manuals, belles-lettres, which owed almost nothing to earlier traditions;
these genres produced huge numbers of texts in the ninth and tenth centuries
(far more than anywhere in Europe, possibly at any point in the middle ages),
and have structured Islamic culture ever since.19 Some of that cultural achieve-
ment, especially in medicine and philosophy, would be brought to western
Europe too, by translators into Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The caliphate was thus kept politically operative and, for a long time,
immensely rich by an effective fiscal and administrative system. This moved
more slowly away from its Roman (and Persian) roots than did the fiscal struc-
tures of not only the western European kingdoms but even the Byzantine
empire. In the lands of the former Roman empire, Arab-ruled Egypt and the
Levant also changed less in their economy than any other region; it is indeed
hard to pinpoint the moment of the Arab conquests in archaeological terms at
all, and the prosperity of the sixth century, which the Byzantine provinces had
lost, continued here without much change for a long time.20 New Islamic cities,
like Fustat (now part of Cairo) and after 762 Baghdad, could be huge in size.
When Mediterranean-wide exchange developed again in the eleventh to thir-
teenth centuries, Egypt was even more dominant as a production and exchange
focus than it had been under Rome. In the caliphate, that is to say, long-term
cultural and religious changes were balanced, and paid for, by a much less
changed economy and political structure: almost the exact reverse of the situa-
tion in Europe, east or west.
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The actual politics of the caliphate were not as stable as the structure of the
state. The immediate successors of Muhammad maintained a central control
over army strategy and resources, which was effective, but was resented by the
armies flush with success and wealth. When the caliph Uthman was murdered
by dissident troops in 656, civil war followed, and an interruption in Arab expan-
sion. In 661, Muawiya, Uthmans cousin, from the Umayyad family, distant rela-
tives of Muhammad, won that war and became caliph (66180); the Umayyads,
based in Damascus in Syria, continued to rule for nearly a century. When,
however, it became apparent at Muawiyas death that he and his successors
intended to rule dynastically, revolts broke out and a second civil war followed,
which was not won by the Umayyads until Abd al-Malik (685705) took
the holy city of Mecca in 692. Abd al-Malik put a much more public religious
stamp on the caliphate; he built monumental mosques, as did his son al-Walid I
(70515), and he took his image off his coins, replacing it with quotes from the
Quran. The Umayyads controlled Syria and Palestine, and never lost the loyalty
of the Egyptian army until the end, but tended to be opposed in Iraq, and some-
times also in Iran. When an Iran-based salvationist revolt broke out in 747, it
gained support elsewhere too; the Umayyads were defeated in 750 and almost
wiped out as a family, and a new family took over the caliphal office, the Abbasids,
who were descendants of Muhammads uncle and thought to be much closer to
Muslim religious legitimacy. (The Alids, descendants of Muhammad himself via
his daughter Fatima, expected to be the beneficiaries of the revolt, but were not,
and remained after that, for the most part, a permanently disappointed family,
although with considerable religious and social prestige.) The Abbasid family
would hold the caliphal title for centuries to come, until it was seized from them
by the Ottomans in 1517, although they only kept control of effective power for
200 years, until the 940s. They based themselves in Iraq, not Syria, which was not
again a major power-centre until the twelfth century; al-Mansur, their second
caliph (75475), was the founder of Baghdad, and his successors were the
patrons of the Arab literary flowering of the next centuries.21
I cannot here pursue the history of the caliphs, or of the numerous successor
dynasties to the Abbasids after they lost control. But it is important at least to
emphasise that the lands ruled by the caliphs had by the 940s broken up into
many separate states, based in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, etc., and were never part of the
same polity again only under the Ottomans were the Muslim-ruled lands of
the Mediterranean plus Iraq reunited, in the sixteenth century, and they never
controlled Iran. Earlier than that, the most powerful of the successor states in
the Mediterranean was the independent Fatimid caliphate (9691171), based
in Egypt but extending its authority up into Syria and, at least nominally, over
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 53

Tunisia and Sicily. The Fatimids, unusually, were Alid by descent, or at least
claimed to be; they were the most successful polity ruled through the Shia,
rather than the Sunni, Muslim tradition during the middle ages.22
Arab civil wars halted the expansion of the caliphate, but their end produced
new attacks on their neighbours, as a sign of renewed unity and commitment;
the caliphate steadily expanded into north Africa and central Asia as a result.
By the end of the seventh century, the caliphate had gained a hegemony over
the Berber kingdoms of the Algerian and Moroccan coast, as well as taking
over Byzantine north Africa. From here, in 711, a Berber and Arab army
invaded Visigothic Spain, and had conquered nearly all of it by 718. This was
as far as they got into Europe (although Sicily was conquered a century or so
later); raiding into Gaul followed, but without much territorial commitment.
The fact was that the caliphate had by now reached as far as, further than, it
could reasonably be expected to get, stretching from the Atlantic to the border
with China; it could not be maintained as a single unit on a really long-term
basis, and was not, as the post-Abbasid period shows although holding the
lands from Egypt to Samarkand together for 300 years until then was already a
logistical and organisational triumph. If there was any new conquest that the
caliphs really wanted after 700, it was Constantinople; but they failed in that in
the same years as their Spanish victory, in 71718. Spain was an add-on, that is
to say; it was already, with much of north Africa, in revolt in 740, and after
75556 was happy to accept the last survivor of the Umayyad dynasty, Abd
al-Rahman I (75688), as an independent amir.23 But the amirate of al-Andalus
was the one part of Europe directly transformed by the Arab conquests, and we
will return to it at the end of the chapter.
As with the end of the western Roman empire, the Arab conquests have
been viewed by much western scholarship through a veil of moralisation, about
the failure of civilisation and the imperial project, and the triumph of barba-
rism. This is nonsense in both cases, but, given the sophistication of the
caliphate, it is particularly egregious here. They have also been seen though the
lens of Orientalism: this was the moment when the eastern and southern
Mediterranean ceased to be part of a common civilisation with the northern
coasts, and became an Other, full of incomprehensible intrigue and harsh and
repetitive indeed, essentially meaningless changes of rgime, under a harsh
sun. This is equally nonsense, but is more insidious because it contains one
grain of truth: an Arab-speaking culture was genuinely opaque to Latin- and
Greek-speaking Europe, except at one or two points of contact, al-Andalus,
Sicily soon, and later the great Italian trading cities, who needed to know how
to deal with the rich parts of the Mediterranean. It was also only too easy for
54 medieval europe

Christian polities to see Muslim ones as existential threats, and sometimes they
acted on that imagery, as, most dramatically, at the time of the crusades; and it
was certainly much harder for the Christian polities to learn from the Muslim
ones, even when there was much to learn. We have to recognise this difference,
while not being taken in by it.
One variant of this imagery does need more comment, however: did the
Arabs actually create Europe itself, by breaking the unity of the Roman and
post-Roman Mediterranean and separating out the European coasts from the
Asian and African ones (with some fuzziness at the margin, the Arabs in
al-Andalus and the Byzantines in Anatolia being the most obvious in this
period)? The great Belgian economic historian Henri Pirenne certainly thought
so in the early twentieth century; for him, the Mediterranean was an economic
whole until the Arab conquests broke the trading links of the Roman empire,
and only then was European commerce forced northwards to what Pirenne
saw as its natural focus, that is to say Belgium.24 This is factually untrue; the
western Mediterranean had already lost its economic unity before the seventh
century; by the tenth century, conversely, merchants from the Islamic states
were recreating a Mediterranean commercial network from al-Andalus to
Egypt and Syria, which Byzantium and the Italian cities later simply plugged
into.25 But it cannot be denied that, from now onwards, the southern boundary
of the Christian-ruled world was the Mediterranean Sea, and not, as it had
been in 500, the Sahara. Where this seductive theory runs aground, rather, is in
the evocation of Europe, which was a meaningless concept as yet, and never a
powerful one in the middle ages, as we saw in Chapter 1; furthermore, the huge
political and cultural differences between northern and southern Europe were,
as yet, far greater than even the differences between the three great eighth-
century western Eurasian players, Francia, Byzantium and the caliphate. This
would remain the case until the latest middle ages, by which time there was
also even more fuzziness at the edges, with the Ottomans by now on the border
of Hungary and the Russian princes poised to break into Siberia. I would rather
abandon these easy and usually complacent world-historical musings, and
simply say: what the Arab conquests created was a third major player in western
Eurasia, one which was more powerful than the previously dominant one, the
(eastern) Roman empire, and one with which everyone would have to deal in
the future. That should be enough to be getting on with.

* * *
After the great siege of Constantinople in 71718, the Byzantines no longer had
to operate in crisis mode, and they realised this relatively soon. The emperor
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 55

who was then ruling, Leo III (71741), the last survivor of a revolving door of
army coups in the previous generation, established a solid power structure on
the basis of his victory, which was inherited and carried forward by his son
Constantine V (74175). Leo legislated; Constantine rebuilt the main aqueduct
system into Constantinople, a considerable undertaking, and a vital one for its
water supply. He also revamped the army, establishing an expert corps of shock
troops, and went on the military offensive for the first time in a century,
campaigning frequently against the Bulgars and Sclavenians, re-establishing
hegemony over what is now Greece and further north too, and even attacking
the Arabs. Constantine had much less interest in the west of the empire, and he
did little to prevent the loss of Ravenna and other central Italian territories
including Rome, where the popes established effective independence during his
reign; nevertheless, in the east his military successes resonated strongly there-
after. Together, Leo and Constantine created the bases for the strong Aegean-
focused Byzantine empire of the central middle ages. It was still restricted in
size, but coherent in fiscal and military terms; it was smaller than the other
major polity in Europe, Francia, but was much more tightly organised internally,
around a still-large and now, again, expanding capital, and it certainly lasted
longer. A later emperor, Nikephoros I (80211), also revised the tax system, and
from his reign onwards the evidence of a revived use of coinage, and, soon, more
complex economic exchange and artisanal production, increases too.26
We see a political confidence here which had not been properly visible since
the sixth century. It was not always fully justified, as yet at least. The Bulgars
regrouped under the khagan Krum (c. 80014), and defeated and killed
Nikephoros; after two more coups and a civil war, in 828 Arab forces occupied
Crete, a strategically vital island, and in 827 began a long conquest of Sicily,
which would take it out of Byzantine hands entirely by 902. But under
Theophilos (82942), who was, like Constantine V, a major builder in
Constantinople, the empire held together, and thereafter Arab attacks dropped
back. The empire was in a good position to take advantage of the first major
period of Abbasid crisis, in the 860s, and the longer one which began in the
tenth century, as we shall see in Chapter 9.27
This was the context, a moderately optimistic one except in the 810s and 820s,
for one of the most interesting Christian conflicts of the middle ages, over the
power of religious images. Alongside the cult of relics, which was long-standing,
there appear from the 680s onwards references to a cult of religious images; such
images had long existed too, but from now on they were regarded by many in a
new way, as windows into the holy presence of the saint (or of Christ) depicted in
them. This was a controversial belief, not held by all, for others believed that it
56 medieval europe

was wrong to venerate what was merely paint on wood, created by humans; but
it was widespread enough to have some of its elements standardised by the eccle-
siastical Council in Trullo of 691/92. Why it appeared and only in Byzantium,
not in the west seems above all to be because the late seventh century was the
period when the Byzantines were adjusting to the shock of defeat; to have as
direct an access as possible to the divine was attractive to many. It became mixed
up immediately, however, with a felt need by the church hierarchy to control the
detail of religious practices, which was in fact the main concern of the Council in
Trullo the danger of impure ritual had, in effect, replaced the danger of incor-
rect belief about the nature of Christ and for many the cult of images was not
just something which needed to be controlled, but was itself actively impure. The
issue of whether the cult of images was a good or a bad thing also connected with
a cross-cultural unease about the issue of representation in general, for this was
the period in which the caliphs began to abandon the use of any human imagery
at all, at least in public and religious settings. There are no grounds for arguing
for a Muslim influence on Byzantine Christianity here, or indeed vice versa, but
clearly the question of whether human representations were good or bad, holy or
impious, resonated across political and religious boundaries.28
Questions of this kind help to explain the eighth-century backlash against
the cult of images, which is first documented in the 720s and 730s in the actions
of two Anatolian bishops. Around 750 this was taken up by Constantine V
himself, who wrote two tracts against images called the Peuseis, and in 754
called the Council of Hiereia to condemn image veneration. A few such images
in churches seem to have been destroyed and replaced by crosses, which were
for Constantine fully acceptable, because symbolic, objects of veneration.
(Most holy portraits were not destroyed, however, as far as we can tell today.)
More important, the immediate, and uncontrolled, access to the sacred
provided by religious images was to be replaced by the mediation of clerics,
and by church ritual focused on the Eucharist. This is what Constantines icon-
oclasm consisted of (the word, it should be noted, is a modern invention, and
was unknown to the Byzantines). It is hard to know how controversial this was.
Constantine certainly had opponents, although we only know for sure about
the popes in Rome; conversely, the army seems to have been with him, prob-
ably also the capital, and when they got to learn about it so were theologians
in Francia, where, in a world in which images had little religious charge,
Constantines measures would have seemed fairly normal. What is clear, on the
other hand, is that when Constantine and then his son Leo IV died, Leos
widow Eirene, empress regent for her son Constantine VI (78097), was able to
reverse the policy, and at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 re-established
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 57

image veneration, with a comprehensive condemnation of Constantine V and

his religious views.29 Eirene was a tough woman; she would later depose and
blind her son, almost the only woman to take power by force in medieval
European history, and she ruled alone until she herself fell in a coup in 802 in
favour of Nikephoros I. The Second Council of Nicaea was perhaps simply a
way of getting her own supporters into positions of authority instead of her
father-in-law Constantines, as well as bringing Byzantine religious practice
back into line with that of Rome. Her success is also a marker of the real
authority which imperial women were capable of exercising in the Byzantine
world she was part of a succession of major figures from Theodora, through
the emperor-makers Sophia (Justin IIs widow) in the sixth century and
Martina (Heraclius widow) in the seventh, to the empresses regnant Zoe and
Theodora in the 1040s and 1050s even if her eventual overthrow marks the
fragility of female power as well.30 But the 802 coup did not re-establish icono-
clasm, which perhaps shows that there was more unhappiness, or indifference,
about Constantine Vs religious views than we have any evidence for earlier.
That was not the end of it. Nikephoros death in battle alarmed the empire,
and the memory of Constantine Vs victories began to resonate greatly, partic-
ularly inside the army; in 815, a new emperor, Leo V, returned to iconoclasm in
the hope of a return to military success. But this Second Iconoclasm, as it is
often called, seems to have been more of a rgime and army cult, promoted
with enthusiasm only by Theophilos in the 830s, and anyway the military
success did not materialise. At his death, the regency council for his young son
Michael III abandoned it within a year, and in 843 revived a formalised vener-
ation of images which was much more thorough-going, because by now theo-
logically justified in considerable detail, than it had ever been in the mid-eighth
century. The veneration of sacred portraits icons has been an essential
element of Orthodox Christianity ever since, and marked Byzantine religious
culture until the empires end. The independence of mind of some Byzantine
religious writers after that may have been because, to an extent, they were
starting again. The central medieval Byzantine state was the work of Constantine
V, as developed by Nikephoros I and Theophilos, but the religious orthodoxy
of that state was established in rejection of all three (even Nikephoros, who,
although anti-iconoclast, had overthrown Eirene, the heroine of Nicaea). The
Byzantine secular world in the future would have to find newer heroes.

* * *
Let us finish this chapter by going back to al-Andalus: not properly an eastern
state in fact, it was (with Ireland) as far west as one can go in Europe but at
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least heavily influenced by the political patterns which were working out in
Egypt and Iraq. Al-Andalus did not include the whole of Spain; the Arabs did
not take over the mountainous northern fringe of the peninsula, where small
and incoherent Christian kingdoms clung on in the eighth and ninth century,
becoming slightly more coherent in the tenth.31 The Arabs also based them-
selves in the south, in the Roman city of Crdoba, not in the central plateau
around the old capital of Toledo; Toledo and other major northern centres
like Zaragoza were treated, rather, as large frontier areas, important to rule,
certainly, but where central control was incomplete. The Umayyad amirate did
not have an easy start; Spain was very fragmented after the conquest, with
different sectors of the peninsula in different relationships with central power.
It was also one of the few places the Arabs conquered which did not have a
strong fiscal system already in place, and, although the Arab rulers sought to
set one up as fast as they could, it was not working with the effectiveness which
one would have taken for granted in the Middle East until the tenth century.
Crdoba grew fast as a capital, all the same; at its height in the tenth century it
may have been, briefly, the largest city in Europe. Abd al-Rahman I in 756
established Umayyad dynastic rule which lasted without a break until 1031,
and with little by way of succession problems. This at least acted as a secure
basis for a steady growth in the power of the amiral rgime, which developed,
notwithstanding al-Andaluss independence, largely thanks to borrowings of
governmental techniques from the Abbasid state. This went hand in hand with
the Islamisation of the ruling class and then, more slowly, of the Spanish popu-
lation in general, which was notable in Crdoba by the ninth century and had
probably reached a tipping point everywhere in the amirate by the early tenth.32
This political system nearly broke up in the first great period of civil wars,
between the 880s and the 920s, when local political figures revolted across
much of al-Andalus one of them, Umar ibn Hafsun (d. 917), who claimed
Visigothic descent, even converted to Christianity, a sure sign of flaws in
Umayyad hegemony. But Abd al-Rahman III (91261) reversed this rapidly,
conquering almost all the new local potentates, and fully centralising his realm
in fiscal terms for the first time. Facing as he did the expansionism and caliphal
claims of the Fatimids, he called himself caliph in 929, and established an
ambitious new court just outside Crdoba at Madinat al-Zahra, which was
aimed to impress outsiders, and did. This was the century when al-Andalus
reached its height, with the development of Almera as a Mediterranean port,
and a complex economy and material culture developing well outside the
capital. In the last years of the century, al-Mansur, the powerful chamberlain of
the caliph, who ran the state in 9811002, took war to the northern kingdoms,
Crisis and transformation in the east, 500850/1000 59

which had expanded during the first civil war, and sacked their major towns,
Len and Santiago de Compostela. Al-Andalus looked as if it might move
further still, to cover the whole peninsula.33
This did not happen. Al-Mansurs inept heirs after 1009 allowed the state to
descend into civil war over the succession; Crdoba was sacked in 1013, the
caliphate was abandoned in 1031, and the state ended up fragmented between
some thirty Taifa (literally, factional) kingdoms, in Toledo, Seville, Valencia,
Granada and so on. We shall see in Chapter 8 that this allowed the Christian
kingdoms to expand further, and to gain, for the first time, a greater military
strength than the now-divided Muslim polities, as the latter found when
Alfonso VI of Castile took Toledo, the first major territorial loss for al-Andalus,
in 1085. This was by no means the end for Muslim Spain, however. The Taifas,
long seen as a failure because of their division, were in fact often very successful
and effective small kingdoms. They maintained the political and fiscal struc-
tures which were established under Abd al-Rahman III, and they generated a
sophisticated political culture. In their wealth and intellectual activity, they
recall the late medieval Italian city-states; if they were poor at defending them-
selves against larger armies from Christian Castile and then (invading to
defend them in the late 1080s) the Almoravids of Muslim Morocco, much the
same can be said for the Italian cities when they faced the French and the
Germans from the 1490s onwards. The Taifas indeed produced one of the most
interesting practical political treatises of medieval Europe, The Tibyan of Abd
Allah al-Ziri, ruler of Granada (107390), who lost his kingdom to the
Almoravids and wrote his text in exile in Morocco after that. Abd Allahs book
is a mixture of Machiavellis The prince and Robert Gravess I, Claudius: it is an
autobiographical account of a failed operator whose main political success was
simply to succeed to the throne, but, all the same, an operator intelligent
enough to see where he had gone wrong and to reflect on his mistakes. His
account of Alfonsos divide-and-rule technique, of taking protection money
from rival Taifas so as to weaken them all, is justly famous (Abd Allah learned
the hard way: he refused Alfonsos first demand, but, when Alfonso was paid
more by Seville, ended up himself having to pay more than the original
demand); his comments on when to take advice and when not to, a common
topic of statecraft literature, are unusually elegant (I would listen to what
people had to say with my ears, though not with my mind); his account of his
own fall (including an analysis of why each social group in Granada aban-
doned him) is a model of wisdom after the fact. It would not be until the
fifteenth century, as we shall see in Chapter 12, that we would find again in a
European text such practical awareness by a political player.34
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Al-Andalus regrouped after the fall of Toledo, under Berber dynasties.

They did so twice, in fact: under the Almoravids (10861147), as we have just
seen, and then, from the late 1140s, the Almohads. Not until the Almohads
were defeated by the Castilians in 1212 was al-Andaluss survival seriously at
risk, and even then it took nearly 300 years more for it to vanish entirely. Much
of the complexity of the Umayyad caliphate returned in the twelfth century,
indeed; the intellectual and educational environment which the Almohads
could pay for produced, for example, the Aristotelian philosophy and scientific
treatises of Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), who, Latinised as Averroes, entranced the
masters of the university of Paris in the thirteenth century.35 This continued in
the amirate of Granada later, where some of the highest-quality architecture of
the whole middle ages survives in the fourteenth-century Alhambra palace.
All the same, the point about al-Andalus, which we need to end with, is not
its eventual fate, however scintillating the path to it was. Rather, it is to stress
that in the tenth century the Crdoba caliphate was, with Byzantium, one of
the two most effective political systems of Europe, based in each case on a fiscal
structure that had no equivalent elsewhere. In that century, the wealth and
power of the continent lay at its south-western and south-eastern corners. The
Latin Christians in the middle knew this full well. They admired Byzantium,
sometimes resentfully; they feared al-Andalus; but they recognised the force of
both. And al-Andalus, when it did break up, maintained the political struc-
tures of the caliphate in each of the warring kingdoms thanks to models
which had been set in place in the east in the seventh century, and developed
from then on by the Abbasids and Fatimids. It was a rich territory when the
Christian kingdoms, of Castile, Aragn and Portugal, eventually divided up
the spoils.
chapter four

The Carolingian experiment,


The Carolingians have fascinated a generation and more of historians for their
ambition: they presided over the largest-scale attempt to rethink politics in the
whole of the middle ages. On one level, it is true, largest-scale was easy: the
Frankish empire of Charles the Great, Charlemagne (768814), and his son
Louis the Pious (81440), was substantially larger than any other political
system in medieval Europe, covering as it did modern France, Germany and
the Low Countries, and extending out to northern Italy, Catalonia and Austria.
The political initiatives which we find in some western European polities after
1200 were not always less radical, as with the innovative political institutions of
north Italian cities in the thirteenth century, or the Hussites in Bohemia in the
fifteenth; but they happened piecemeal, and/or over a far smaller geographical
compass. Nor were the Carolingian kings and lites fully aware of what they
were doing; the mission they had was largely seen as moral, even theological,
with imperatives which had old roots (they modelled themselves on biblical
Israel and the Christian Roman empire), and political procedures which were
often almost as old they were just trying to do it right. Indeed, often they
failed, for the political ambitions and assumptions of too many players,
including the moralists themselves, were far too self-interested, violent,
corrupt: the normal political needs of everyday life usually crowded grand
theory out, as they have tended to do in most other societies too. But under-
standing the Carolingians is crucial for all that, as they were indeed trying to
do something new, even if they did not realise it, and on bases that were quite
different from those of any later political systems. They will often appear
further on in this book as a point of comparison for future western European
history, and we need to get them straight. They are also well documented; if we
know more about the Merovingians than about any other post-Roman kingdom
in the west, we know much more about the Carolingians than the Merovingians.
So they justify our attention; and we will here pursue Francia past the main

62 medieval europe

Carolingian period, which ended in 887, and through into the successor states
of the tenth century as well.
Let us start off with a quick narrative of the politics of the eighth and ninth
centuries; then we will look at the way the Carolingians ruled, before coming
to the ideological project which sought to underpin it.1 Charles Martel, the
maior who took over Francia in the 710s, initiated the run of conquests that
mark out the eighth century in the Carolingian world, as we saw in Chapter 2.
The Carolingian family was descended from him, and later medieval writers
named it after him. He still nominally ruled on behalf of Merovingian kings,
but they had no power at all by now, and between 737 and his death in 741 he
did not even bother to create a new king. His two sons, Pippin III and Carloman
I, did so when they succeeded him, but already by 751 Pippin, now sole ruler,
judged it possible simply to take power as king himself. However little power
the Merovingians had by now, however, the tradition of their rule was 250
years old, and the family had a sacrality which is both hard to pinpoint and
impossible to dismiss; this was a coup. Pippin and his heirs spent time covering
this up, and so did their historians; maybe the pope himself had agreed to it in
advance; maybe the aristocracy had agreed to Pippin being anointed by
Archbishop Boniface of Mainz. But it is certainly the case that Pope Stephen II
(75257), who came to Francia in 754 to seek Pippins help against Lombard
attack (it was the first time a pope had ever come north of the Alps), himself
anointed Pippin king, in a gesture which had no precedent in the Frankish
world although the Visigoths had used the anointing ritual previously.2 This
set the tone for Carolingian political action ever after, for, without the support
of the church, they were just another aristocratic family, even if by far the most
prominent one in Francia. The commitment to an ecclesiastical vision of poli-
tics followed; already Pippin and Carloman were organising church councils in
the 740s, there were more in the 750s, and there would be still more in the
century to follow.
Charles Martel had had an army in the field almost every year during his
rule; his sons did too, and by Pippins death they had conquered most of the
main independent regions that the Merovingians had once ruled. Charlemagne,
Pippins son, and sole ruler by 771, carried this on in grand style. He took over
the Lombard kingdom of Italy rapidly in 77374; he fought the Saxons on his
northern frontier with less immediate success, for it took from 772 to 804 to
subdue them and force them to convert to Christianity, but he managed it by
then. (The Saxons were hard to defeat precisely because they were not a unitary
people, a problem Roman emperors had found in their northern campaigns
centuries before too; but they did give the Franks of the period a constant
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 63

military training.) Charlemagne invaded Bavaria, the last one-time Merovingian

region, in 787, and took it without a fight; Frankish raiding armies then went
further east, attacking the Avar capital in what is now Hungary in 79596, raids
which did not conquer the Avars but did gain the Franks unheard-of wealth as
their booty wealth which was presumably the result of earlier Avar attacks on
Byzantium. Charlemagne also moved into Spain, but that campaign, against
al-Andalus, was a harder task; still, the area around Barcelona was stably under
Frankish rule by 801. All in all, by the time large-scale offensive war stopped in
804, the lands ruled by the Frankish king were twice the size of those ruled by
Charles Martel, and the boundaries remained firm afterwards. This was an
empire, not a kingdom, by now, so it has seemed significant to modern histo-
rians that Charlemagne was crowned imperator, emperor, by the pope in Rome
in 800; even though this seems not to have been any major turning point in
reality, the title was certainly welcome to him and his successors.3
Charlemagne established a new palace at Aachen in the 790s, and by the
time his only surviving son Louis the Pious succeeded in 814 it had become a
real capital. Louis used it as his major base, for policy-making and campaign
planning; by now frontier war was largely policing, but Louis established an
ample buffer zone to the east, of tributary peoples, mostly Slavic-speaking,
from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and he could mobilise armies fast, as in 817,
when he defeated a revolt led by his nephew Bernard, subordinate king of Italy.4
The 820s were quiet, Louiss high summer, but the 830s were not: that was
when Louis faced two major uprisings in 830 and 83334 by his three eldest
sons, Lothar, Pippin and (in 833) Louis the German, in the second of which he
temporarily lost power. This crisis for Louis is a classic case study for how
Carolingian political ideology worked in practice, and we will come back to it.
He recouped his power at the end of the decade, however, and passed it on
without incident to his three surviving sons Pippin, who had died, was
replaced by Louiss youngest son Charles the Bald who fought a brief civil
war in 84142 and then formally divided up the Frankish lands at the treaty of
Verdun in 843.
The Carolingians, like the Merovingians before them, regarded dividing the
kingdom as normal, and had done so in 741 and 768; the same would have
happened in 814 if Louiss brothers had not died. In 843, Lothar (84055), as
the eldest brother and already co-emperor, took the central lands around
Aachen and a narrow strip of land connecting it to his political power-base in
Italy; Louis (84076) took East Francia, roughly the lands east of the Rhine;
Charles (84077) took West Francia, roughly the western two thirds of what is
now France. Each of these three were divided later between sons as well. That
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was too many divisions, and the Carolingians were always worried about there
being too many heirs; they excluded female-line heirs and illegitimate sons
from the succession, and gave the latter non-royal-sounding names like Hugh
and Arnulf to mark the fact. (The reason why the Carolingians have nick-
names, most of which were contemporary or nearly so, is because the royal
names were so few in number.) But, having done that, they ran into trouble
when so many of the Carolingian cousins died without legitimate male heirs.
By the late 870s, there were getting to be too few Carolingians, not too many,
and a single king-emperor, Charles the Fat, the only legitimate adult male,
inherited all of the kingdoms between 876 and 884. Charles the Fat could not,
however, easily return to the centralised power of Louis the Piouss days. In the
generation after 843, separate political networks had emerged for the main
kingdoms (in Italy, which had had its own king almost continuously since
Charlemagnes conquest, this had indeed happened well before), and it would
be necessary to square each of them separately to rule effectively. Charles
did not have time for that; he was toppled in 887 in a coup by his nephew
Arnulf ironically, himself an illegitimate son.5 The different kingdoms then
went their separate ways, as we shall see later in this chapter.
But they had already begun to do so. Italy was the most tightly run, espe-
cially under Lothars son Louis II (84075); it was relatively small, and could
draw on the capillary government of the Lombard past. East Francia was
the hardest to govern, as it had mostly never been Roman and had poor
communications it included the regions of Francia where the Carolingian
ideological project had least traction but it was the most powerful in military
terms, as Louis the German kept his armies active with frontier wars, not
least against the newly powerful kingdom of Moravia in what is now the
Czech Republic. Charles the Balds West Francia has attracted most attention,
as it is the best-documented, and Charles was particularly ambitious in his
political project; but it was the least successful of the three militarily, for it
was the most exposed to Scandinavian Viking attacks, seaborne pirate raids
(see Chapter 5), which began in the 830s and were almost continuous into the
880s.6 Louis II could claim in a letter to the Byzantine emperor Basil I that the
empire was still united, since the Carolingians were a single family,7 and in
many ways he was right; Verdun was not intended to be any more permanent
than previous divisions, and Charles the Fats succession shows it. But there
was little cooperation between the brothers and cousins (against Vikings, for
example); instead, and unsurprisingly, there was at least occasional war, with
Louis the German trying to take West Francia in 858 and Charles the Bald
attacking the East in 876. After 887, the successor kingdoms did not, for the
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 65

most part, have Carolingians as kings, and the divisions became more perma-
nent as a result.

* * *
It has been argued that the Carolingians ran into trouble soon after their empire
stopped expanding, from aristocracies whose loyalty to the king would lessen
without constant military success. That was not the case. Aristocratic rebel-
lions against Charlemagne mark the 780s and 790s, not later, and those against
Louis and his heirs were almost exclusively led by royal brothers and sons; it is
very hard to link the aristocratic backing which royal rebels had to any wider
disaffection with the Carolingian project as it developed.8 Rather, the aristocra-
cies of the Frankish world, particularly the old, land-rich, families from the
royal heartland of what is now northern France, Belgium and western Germany,
gained so hugely from royal largesse, both during and after the century of
conquest, that their loyalty to the Carolingians, at least in general terms, was
not in doubt. Anyone in favour with the king could expect gifts of both land
and office, honores as the Franks called them (they included monastic as well
as royal land, and even power over monasteries themselves). These were not
necessarily permanent, or heritable, but the loyal could expect in practice to
pass on royal land gifts to their sons, and local office-holding too, even if not
necessarily in the same place. Aristocratic families became very widely spread
indeed as a result, as with the family we call the Widonids, originating from
near Mainz on the Rhine, who by the 840s included counts and dukes both at
the mouth of the Loire and in central Italy a thousand kilometres away: the
Widonids could present problems for Carolingian rulers, but they could not
have kept this range of power without an at least partially unitary empire, and
they knew it.9
Both king and aristocracies secular and ecclesiastical were very rich in
land, then, as they had been in the Merovingian period, but by now still more
so. This was also the context for a considerable activity in the economy of the
Frankish lands, particularly in the northern parts between the Rhine and the
Seine, the Frankish heartland. (It is much less evident in Carolingian Italy,
where the evidence also indicates that lites were not so wealthy.) This may
have had partially wider roots; there are signs that the ninth century was the
period in which the population of Europe as a whole started, slowly, to rise,
although such a rise was only significant in later centuries, as we shall see in
Chapter 7. But it was also the result of a greater intensity of agrarian exploita-
tion. The ninth century was a period of particularly active estate management
by some major landowners, particularly monasteries in the north, which is
66 medieval europe

documented in detailed registers of land and rents called polyptychs more

detailed than any others we have for Europe until the thirteenth century.
Church owners, at least, and the kings as well, were concerned to get resources
out of their properties as systematically as they could. They sold the surplus
too, and this must have been to buy things: we have written sources showing a
network of markets in ninth-century Francia, and wine and cloth moving
substantial distances. This is confirmed by archaeology, for coins and well-
made pottery were widely distributed, as were more specialised products like
glass, and basalt quernstones from the Rhineland.10 On the Rhine, cities like
Cologne continued to be important commercial centres, and some, like Mainz,
show new activity; and, not least, a network of ports on the Frankish coast
reached their height, such as Dorestad in the Rhine delta near modern Utrecht,
which show that this active exchange had an international dimension there
were equivalent ports in England and Denmark.11 (These were the routes the
Vikings came down.) In this period, economic activity is above all a guide to
lite demand, and thus lite wealth, but this was clearly considerable if as much
activity as this was generated in northern Francia. It gave a further bounce to
the political protagonism of the period.
Every lay aristocrat or senior cleric who wanted to be recognised as a polit-
ical player came to the kings great assemblies. Those who did not might be
seen as enemies; worse, they risked being thought to be nobodies. They were
expected to bring gifts, which were so numerous that, in Charlemagnes time,
horses given in gift had to have labels to make it clear who gave them. The
assembly politics of the Merovingian period was at least as important under
the Carolingians, and perhaps even more so; major affairs of state were decided
at the placitum generale, the standard name for the usually twice-yearly
assembly, meeting in different places in the Frankish heartland (as also, sepa-
rately, in Italy), which united the principal secular and ecclesiastical lords. The
political conflicts of each reign were worked out in these public spaces too, as
when Louis the Pious chose to do public penance at the 822 Attigny assembly
for the blinding and subsequent death of Bernard of Italy after his rebellion, so
as to draw a line under a controversial act. These assemblies were thus not just
a place for the Frankish lites to seek the favour of the king, but were necessary
for royal legitimacy too they were still, as in previous centuries, the places
where royal power and royal actions (of which a good example is Louiss
Attigny penance itself) were presented in public to the populus, even if that was
a highly lite subset of the people, to gain its consent.12 The use of the word
public here reflects the texts, for the Carolingians used the word publicus
often, referring (among other things) to penance, the placitum, and, more
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 67

generally, the res publica, meaning something close to what we call the state.
Kings and their senior ministers worked hard to ensure that the debate at such
assemblies was controlled, and did not get out of hand; but it is important to
recognise that there was indeed debate, and people did express unpopular
opinions, as when Archbishop Agobard of Lyon (d. 840), always an outspoken
man, made a speech against lay occupation of church land which went down
badly at the same Attigny assembly. Indeed, in smaller versions of the general
placitum, meetings of the closest royal fideles, there could be a lot of argument.
But kings had the last word; when they did not, as we shall see happened to
Louis in 833, they were in serious trouble.13
It needs to be stressed again that aristocrats also found themselves in what
we could call the royal sphere because the alternatives to it were not as attrac-
tive as they would be in later centuries. As with the Merovingian period, we do
not find any good evidence for local lordships under the Carolingians: territo-
ries dominated by a single landowner, in which he was lord and others were his
followers, which could operate as autonomous power-bases. None of the three
Widonid political centres, for example, counted as such even the march of
Spoleto in central Italy, which they controlled for a long time, for their tenure
of it still depended on royal appointment, which could be reversed. As earlier
in Francia, the political foci of aristocrats could move around, as a man in royal
favour might pick up land in unexpected extra places and, after 843 when
rival kings wanted more exclusive loyalty from followers, as he might lose it
elsewhere too. So, for example, in the showdown between Louis the German
and Charles the Bald in 858, some members of the Welf family, related to Louis
the Piouss second wife Judith and ancestors of one of the major families of
central medieval Europe, chose Charles and lost their East Frankish honores;
the family split in two as a result.14 Every aristocrat (or, by now, abbot or bishop)
had a military retinue, with men who had sworn loyalty to him as their lord
(senior); Carolingian armies were above all made up of such private retinues.
Personal relations of dependence were fundamental to this world. But every
free man had also sworn an oath of loyalty to the king Charlemagne made
such oaths very elaborate in 802 and the king indeed regarded such men as
his, as much as or more than the men of their personal senior; when, for
example, Bishop Hincmar of Laon removed lands from insufficiently loyal
followers in the 860s, they complained directly to Charles the Bald.15 And men
of military standing, the most prosperous free men in any locality, could have
a variety of different patrons. Einhard (d. 840), the biographer of Charlemagne
and a major figure in Louiss court after him, who had a wide patronage
network, wrote to Archbishop Hraban Maur of Mainz in the 830s about one of
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Hrabans men, Gundhart, who had been called to the army by the local count,
probably in the Rhn region of central Germany; but the count was in feud
with him, and fighting under him would be close to a death sentence. Gundhart
planned not to go, and instead to pay the fine for neglect of military service;
Einhard was asking Hraban to agree to him doing this. Gundhart thus had
obligations to the king, via the count; to his personal lord, Hraban; to his kin-
group (hence the feud); but also had an entirely separate patron in Einhard.16
This sort of multiple network was common in the Frankish lands, and it
substantially inhibited the construction of a local power-base by any lord. It
can be added that the system of public law courts continued in the Carolingian
world, courts to which even peasants had some access; we have several cases in
which they took on lords, and fragmentary evidence which shows that in some
circumstances, if they got to the king, or perhaps when they had the patronage
of others, they too might win.17 This local public activity made private authority
harder too. Recent high-quality studies of parts of the Carolingian and imme-
diately post-Carolingian world show local societies with considerable complex-
ities of social practice, which single lords could not easily dominate.18 Of
course, we are dealing here with militarised aristocrats, and therefore with men
with a considerable commitment to oppression and violence in their own
interest. Great landowners, both lay and ecclesiastical, had by now extended
their properties substantially and often illegally at the expense of the land-
owning peasantry; this process had become generalised in the seventh century,
and was being finished off in the ninth, as Carolingian legislation often
complained.19 One area of particularly clear dispossession and subjugation of
the peasantry in this period was Saxony, where after the Frankish conquest
both Saxon aristocrats and incoming Frankish secular and ecclesiastical lords
rapidly extended their power over the landowning peasants of much of the
region; during the civil war period of 84142, this led to the Stellinga move-
ment, the most substantial peasants revolt in the whole of the middle ages
until the late thirteenth century, which was put down in 843 by Louis the
German very violently.20 Although this was an extreme, there were doubtless
plenty of areas where, for most of the time, individual aristocrats commanded
in practice. But they were not power-bases they could fully rely on, and, if they
ever had to try, it would be because they were political losers. They needed the
royal courts, and were willing participants in royal policy-making, of all kinds.

* * *
It is under Charlemagne that we first have good evidence of how the Frankish
kings tried, in practical terms, to keep their vast empire under control; the
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 69

evidence swells under Louis, and continues under his sons. One method was
what one could call a flexible uniformity: every district had a count, an aristo-
crat often sent from elsewhere, who ran justice and the army (to repeat, the two
basic elements of government); marches, more militarised territories, were
created on the frontiers; local judicial assemblies (also called placita) came very
widely to have men called scabini, members of local lites, who ran the court for
the count. These were not exactly innovations, as such men had existed every-
where before, but they were regularisations. Counts were clearly seen as agents
of royal power: a poem from 834, which seeks to praise Louis the German, does
it through praise of the judicial activity of a local count in Bavaria called Timo,
your count and legate, glorious king, rendering justice to the good, . . . hated by
thieves and detested by robbers, he abhorred conflicts and extended justice.21
Bishops, too, were used as judicial figures, and as checks on counts, including in
regions such as Italy where they had not been prominent in secular affairs
before. And under Charlemagne and his successors royal representatives called
missi, usually a count and a bishop working in a pair, were routinely used as
roving legal authorities, sent to hear appeals against local counts and also
running their own hearings; after 802 in much of the empire they had defined
districts in which they moved. Other local figures were also asked, often with
written instructions, to do one-off tasks for kings, as letter collections show.
These overlapping roles, as Jennifer Davis calls them, were not arranged in a
precise hierarchy, but they amounted to a network of controls over corruption
and the abuse of power, abuses which were sometimes remedied; and they
pointed back to the king, as final arbiter in the case of any dispute. We even have
a set of written replies from Charlemagne to a missus, who is asking for royal
advice over a set of legal issues, such as social status and illicit tolls (read the law,
one of the replies says in irritated tones, and only bring the issue to the placitum
generale if you cant find an answer there). Counts certainly could be corrupt
there is much complaint in our sources about a culture of gift-giving for favour-
able judgements (what we would call bribery), for example. So could missi be,
for that matter; other missi are sometimes recorded reversing the abuses of their
predecessors, and there are hints of collusion between different sets of officials
as well. Counts were rarely dismissed on these grounds, too such dismissals
were, rather, usually for participation in rebellion and the like.22 But the fact that
in the Carolingian world there were always men being sent out to check on
other men was another, substantial, corrective to any tendency for officials to go
too far in illegal activity or to create local power-bases, even on the edges of
empire, which were by now a long way from the centre. Eventually, someone
would find out and, however delayed, a reaction would follow.
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This was linked to written law. The Carolingians issued many laws and
regulations, called capitularies as they are divided into capitula, chapters, plus
the acts of church councils which partially overlap, reaching their height in the
years 80035. They vary considerably in type, from agendas for assemblies and
one-off instructions to missi which cannot be thought of as legislation, through
formal revisions of the traditional laws of the peoples of the empire, to high-
flown statements about morality and the liturgy. Some only survive in single
copies, but many have multiple manuscripts, and it is evident from some that
they were systematically sent around the empire one manuscript of a capitu-
lary of 803 states that all the magnates in the assembly of the city of Paris signed
it. They do not show us that their very detailed regulations were obeyed, or
even necessarily known about, but their frequency shows that writing was seen
as a natural part of government, and Charlemagnes comments about law cited
in the last paragraph show that he assumed it too. Counts were not necessarily
literate, but very many were, and collections of capitularies and other laws,
prepared for lay officials, survive or are referred to in wills. The written
word, in Rosamond McKittericks influential formulation, was important in
Carolingian government; there are many references not only to written instruc-
tions going out from the court, but also to demands for written replies. It was
not as important as oral communication (as we will see later, it never was in the
medieval world, or for long after), but it structured the whole way that the
Carolingians saw the task of controlling the huge and highly diverse realm that
they ruled.23 Overall, although this governmental practice was imperfect, it was
the densest which was as yet possible in a polity without the complex adminis-
trative system which the Byzantines and Arabs took for granted, and denser
than any other in western Europe for a long time until England in the late
eleventh century, Italy in the mid-twelfth, France in the thirteenth.
Which brings us to the religious side of the Carolingian project, which was,
indeed, seen as indissoluble from the task of governing as just described. This
was certainly for the most part new in the Frankish world; as implied at the
start of the chapter, it must have largely stemmed from the structural relation
between the Carolingians and the church, which began with the coup of 751
and even before. But, however it derived, it was fully visible by the 780s, and
made up a major part of political rhetoric, and even political practice, for a
century. Charlemagne and his successors were aiming at nothing less than the
creation of a collective moral framework for the salvation of the entire Frankish
people, and they assumed that their actions were consistently being monitored
by God. This is particularly clear in a remarkable capitulary, the General admo-
nition of 789, in which the king legislated about clerical morality, the episcopal
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 71

hierarchy, the need for peace and concord, the general avoidance of sin, and
much else along these lines: the stuff of church councils, normally (and largely
borrowed from canon-law texts), but here issued exclusively under the name of
the king, and addressed to all. This imagery was mixed together with more
secular regulations in many subsequent texts.24 We have seen that east Roman/
Byzantine rulers regarded correct Christian belief and practice as fundamental
to their political mission, and so did the Visigoths (the Franks indeed had
access to texts of Spanish church councils); nor would any later medieval ruler
have denied it, if asked. But in no later polity, except perhaps the France of
Louis IX, and again Hussite Bohemia, was the question of moral reform
correctio, correction, as the Carolingians called it as prominent and urgent.
Everyone (or, at least everyone among the empires lites) should engage in it,
as immediately as possible. This urgency came from the king, rather than from
the church, even if Frankish bishops were keen participators in it; notably, the
pope in Rome had much less connection to it, and some popes, such as Paschal
I (81724), were competitive with, perhaps indeed hostile to, it. Only later in
the ninth century did Nicholas I (85867) and John VIII (87282) realise that
the Frankish interest in religious legitimacy would allow them to make inter-
ventions in politics north of the Alps.25
Royal enactments were here backed up by a clearly structured programme
of education. A letter of Charlemagne to his senior clergy of c. 784 stresses that
education was essential for anyone who wished to please God (or indeed the
king), and from then on we find systematic references to schools: there was a
palace school for aristocrats at Aachen, in particular, and royal monasteries,
such as St-Martin in Tours in the west or Fulda in the east, became particularly
active in educating both monks and lay aristocrats. This was one major reason
why the kings could assume that counts and missi would could read their
instructions and laws; and the signs are that, although certainly with excep-
tions, this assumption was justified. The monasteries also created libraries by
copying large numbers of earlier texts, of all kinds: much classical Latin litera-
ture, such as Caesar, Horace and much of Cicero, only survives because of
Carolingian copies. And this educative programme went with another new
feature of Charlemagnes court, followed by those of his heirs: the considerable
space there for intellectuals, coming from all over Francia and the conquered
lands (and England and Ireland), brought there by the remuneration the kings
offered (they almost all ended up rich), and by the simple attraction of being
part of such a large-scale project. These included Alcuin from Northumbria (a
plausible partial drafter of both the 784 letter and the General admonition),
Theodulf from Spain, soon Einhard from East Francia; and in later generations
72 medieval europe

Charles the Balds main advisor Archbishop Hincmar of Reims, the Irish theo-
logian John Scotus, and major Frankish aristocrats like Hraban Maur, among
many others. They were royal advisors and, often, serious political players; and
they created a critical mass of new writing (biblical commentary, theology,
poetry, history), debate and intellectual excitement. This is already visible in
our sources by 790, and it carried on for three generations. The huge scale of
some of the tracts which came out of court circles, like Theodulf s Opus Caroli
of 79093, written against the anti-iconoclast proceedings of the Second
Council of Nicaea, or the lengthy responses by Hincmar and others in the 850s
to the views on predestination of the Fulda monk Gottschalk, are further signs
of that commitment. Such intellectuals were expected to admonish kings as
well as advise them, just as Charlemagne admonished the whole kingdom in
789, and we have plenty of texts in which they did just that; Hincmar was a
master of it, for example.26
A key point is that this was not exclusively an affair of ecclesiastics. Einhard
was a layman, from a minor lite family too, made influential by intellectual
skill; a generation later, Count Eccard of Mcon (d. c. 877), whose will lists
several law-books, histories and the works of major Christian fathers, was
just as committed to the Carolingian project. That went for the royal family as
well: Louis the Pious was steeped in it, and so were his sisters. Perhaps the
most significant example of this was Dhuoda (d. c. 843), wife of Bernard of
Septimania (Louis the Piouss chamberlain and a highly controversial figure in
the crisis years around 830), who wrote a Handbook for her son William full of
advice and admonition from the Bible and Christian Latin literature: for if
Dhuoda had been educated as fully as this, almost certainly at Aachen, then
her male aristocratic counterparts would definitely have been.27 We can
conclude, therefore, that at least some aristocrats bought into the Carolingian
project as much as Charlemagne and Louis, and their religious theorists,
hoped. As we saw in Chapter 2, Frankish lites had long assumed that they
were by definition more virtuous than everybody else; but Charlemagnes and
Louiss court, and schools, certainly gave them new reasons for believing it.
This is relevant for understanding the whole tenor of Carolingian politics,
in which, particularly from the 810s onwards, every major political manoeuvre
was expressed in terms of an emphatically religious and moral discourse,
expressed in programmatic writing which is at times daunting to read. We can
see such writing as the dressing up of low politics in the new-style rhetoric of
the court, but all the signs are that the major players, at least, fully accepted this
style of argument; indeed, given the density of biblical commentary in these
texts, many of them must have known the Bible pretty well. So, for example,
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 73

minor military defeats in Spain in 827 had led to the dismissal of two counts,
who were (doubtless not coincidentally) both close to Louis the Piouss eldest
son Lothar; but the defeats were also seen in Aachen as signs of very serious
divine displeasure, and generated a moral panic. In 828 Louis not only did not
call a summer placitum generale, but even, at the end of the year, stopped
hunting real signs that something was going wrong in the body politic.
Instead, in a smaller winter assembly, Louiss advisors planned four great peni-
tential church councils for 829, and at least two of his most senior fideles, Wala
(Louiss cousin) and Einhard, presented memoranda which made statements
about what had gone wrong. Einhard claimed, in a baroque detail, that his
criticisms had been generated in two sets, in a vision from the archangel Gabriel
and via a demon called Wiggo who had possessed a girl and spoke through her.
Both Wala and Einhard thought that the reasons for the crisis lay in sin: perjury,
pride, hatred, the neglect of Sunday as a rest day, and (in Walas case) the usur-
pation of church property. Clearly the Franks needed to repent, and the 829
church councils duly took this up. Collective penance was necessary, from top
to bottom, and not least in the royal court itself, the moral centre of the Frankish
universe. The Spanish defeats, which might have been hardly noticeable in a
less quiet decade, had thus spiralled, to engulf the whole of political society.28
This religious tension was also the setting for the two revolts of Louiss sons
in the immediately following years. One of the new accusations at the time of
the 830 revolt was the claim that Louiss wife Judith the stepmother of the sons
in revolt was sleeping with Bernard of Septimania. The claim was very unlikely,
but reflected tightly the importance of keeping the court morally immaculate.
The imagined sexual misdeeds of queens punctuated Carolingian politics for
that reason, and several after Judith Lothar IIs wife Theutberga in the 850s
860s, Charles the Fats wife Richgard in the 880s, Arnulf s wife Uota in the
890s faced high-profile accusations and court proceedings as a result.
Carolingian queens were never regents, unlike in the sixth and seventh centuries
and again in the tenth, but their importance to ruling, both in practice (they were
major patrons and agents of government) and in moralising theory, is shown
clearly in their exposure to sexual accusations of this kind. Carolingian politics
was moralised not only in religious but also in gender terms. If Louis could not
keep his court sexually pure, his enemies thought, he was not fit to rule.29
Louis faced out his sons in 830, but they were not really reconciled, and
revolted again in 833. This time they won, for, when Louis with an army
confronted that of his sons near Colmar in Alsace, at what came to be called the
Field of Lies, Louiss army melted away and joined the opposing side; the
emperor was imprisoned and replaced by his son Lothar. We cannot really tell
74 medieval europe

why Louiss support vanished; the narratives of the occasion are detailed, but
are no more than manifestos for each side. What we do know, however, is that
in the Compigne assembly that October, the magnates and bishops of the
kingdom determined that Louis was not only deposed, but also that he should
do public penance for his ill-doing. We have the texts written by the bishops
involved; Louiss sins included assembling an army during Lent, and requiring
contradictory (and thus perjured) oaths, as well as more ordinary offences
such as exiling opponents and having Bernard of Italy killed. But was this
penance, which Louis subsequently performed at Soissons, voluntary and thus
just, or forced and thus even if shameful invalid? The ritual could be, and
was, capable of several different readings, and our texts reflect that. When
Louiss sons fell out the next year, enabling his return to power, the invalidity of
the penance was of course stressed most, and assemblies in 83435 vehemently
underlined that. By now, the whole period of the uprisings was simply the work
of the devil.30
It would be easy to rewrite the last couple of pages in purely secular terms,
and historians have frequently done so; Louis can be seen falling out with and
mishandling adult sons, who were anxious to succeed and worried about his
second wife and her own growing son, a situation exacerbated by the lasting
hostility of lesser political players, both counts and bishops, who had fallen out
of favour and ended up in Lothars camp, such as Agobard of Lyon (who wrote
some of the 833 texts). And that was of course a major context for the events of
these years as well; self-interest was a key element here. But this does not mean
that the players regarded the moral/religious framing of the events, which is
stressed by all our sources, as a sham. The insistence at Compigne on the
penance, like the panic that led to the councils of 829, would hardly have been
needed if so. The key issue was that everything in Carolingian high politics was
by now so tied up with the validation of divine approval that resolutions of
political problems by means of penitential and other ecclesiastical ritual were
seen by every player as entirely appropriate procedures. This religious under-
standing was not exactly practical (indeed, the panic of 82829 could easily be
seen as a huge waste of everyones time), but that was not the point. Even in
crisis, the Carolingian political world was ambitious beyond ordinary levels,
for they assumed that everything they did, including when they did it badly,
was crucial to God.
We can find a similar degree of dense moral imagery used to describe and
frame many of the political manoeuvres (some of them very dubious) of the
Carolingian cousins into the 870s. It was weakening in the 880s; even though it
had not gone away, Charles the Fat showed less commitment to it. All the same,
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 75

that Charles was very interested in his Carolingian heritage: at his request,
between 885 and 887, Notker of St. Gallen wrote his Deeds of Charlemagne, a
set of mostly imaginary stories about an already semi-mythical, and certainly
allegorical, emperor. Notker imagined that Charlemagne, whom he calls most
vigilant, had the windows of his palace specially built so that he could see
everything, whatever was being done by people coming and going, as if in
hiding . . . nothing could be hidden from the eyes of the most clear-sighted
Charles.31 The fact that the image of Charlemagne had, seventy years after his
death, become encapsulated in this idea of vigilance and surveillance, fits what
we have seen so far in this chapter. The Carolingian imperial system relied on
knowledge and communication, and on the belief that the emperor could
potentially see everything. But Gods vigilant surveillance over the palace, and
the empire, was equally complete.

* * *
In 887, things certainly changed. Arnulf s coup only brought him to power in
East Francia, and the early death of both him and his sons forced the East
Frankish magnates in 911 to elect a non-Carolingian, Conrad I, a duke in
central Germany, and another in 919, Henry I, duke of Saxony in the north. In
Italy, two non-Carolingian families had already fought it out in contested elec-
tions in 88889. Berengar I (888924), marquis of Friuli in north-east Italy,
survived five rivals in the end, and even made himself emperor in 915, a title
which, by now, went with the kingship of Italy only; but after his murder that
kingship went to three more families in turn. The Rhne valley became two
independent kingdoms, of Burgundy and Provence, with other former aristo-
crats as kings. West Francia saw the count of Paris, Odo (88898), become
king, but opposed by a surviving Carolingian, Charles the Simple (898923),
who succeeded him as king after a peace agreement; Odos brother Robert I
(92223) later revolted against Charles, and the two families continued to be
rivals after that. All in all, across the century after 887, nine Frankish aristo-
cratic families became king of somewhere in the former Frankish empire; some
of them had Carolingian female-line descent, but most did not. A contempo-
rary chronicler called them reguli, kinglets. For a generation and more after
Charles the Fats deposition, that is to say, the political structures of each
kingdom were of uncertain legitimacy and highly unstable the only one
which was not unstable was the small kingdom of Burgundy, around Lake
Geneva, which kept a single dynasty under four long-lived kings up to 1032,
and absorbed Provence in the 930s. Under these circumstances, it is not so
surprising that the Carolingian moral-political project faded away across the
76 medieval europe

same period; Henry Is family, whom we call the Ottonians, by far the most
successful of this set, revived some of it later in the century as we shall see in a
moment, but never to the same extent. Education and politically orientated
religious writing, both of which continued, became more the province of the
church by now, and the sort of programmatic admonition of kings which had
continued late into the ninth century was far less common in the tenth with
the exception of the highly Carolingian-influenced kingdom of England, as we
shall see in the next chapter.32
As in the ninth century, but even more so, West Francia was the most trou-
bled of the kingdoms. At least Scandinavian attacks finally ended when Charles
the Simple gave the Seine Vikings a separate county, the core of what became
Normandy, in 911; but the king only had any real authority north of the Loire,
and that was itself a territory in which he had to compete with rival powers,
Odos and Roberts Robertine family being only one of them and the
Normans, always hard to keep quiet, were by now another. By the 930s, Charless
son Louis IV (93654) controlled only a few counties directly, fewer than the
Robertines. The West Frankish lands became a patchwork of duchies and
counties, with only nominal links to the kings in the north. Nor did this change
when the Robertine duke Hugh Capet definitively took the throne away from
the Carolingians in 987, for the group of counties which the Capetian family
(as we call them from now on) had long controlled around Paris had by now
broken up as well.33
Henry I for some time had little control over most of the East Frankish
lands either, and his power-base was far away from the traditional Carolingian
heartland, based as it was on the east Saxon military frontier. But this at least
gave him a fighting force, which trained by attacking and enslaving the Slavic-
speaking peoples to the east (see Chapter 5); this allowed him to conquer the
territory around Aachen, called Lotharingia by now, which had much royal
land in it, and to defend East Francia from the attacks of the newest nomadic
people to enter Europe, the Magyars, known to their neighbours, then as now,
as Hungarians. This gave him sufficient status throughout the kingdom for
there to be no opposition to the succession of his son Otto I (93672). Otto
faced out rebellions twice in his reign, which allowed him to replace most of
the dukes of the major East Frankish duchies with his own relatives, at least for
long enough to bring their power structures more under his control; he was
hegemonic in the old Frankish heartland, and even the West Frankish kings
recognised his role of senior Frankish ruler his sister the queen-mother
Gerberga and his brother Archbishop Brun of Cologne were the effective
regents of West Francia in the late 950s. He took this further by invading Italy
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 77

twice, and making himself both king and emperor in 962; the kingdom of Italy
was thereafter part of the Frankish empire again, and Otto, his son Otto II
and grandson Otto III (9831002), henceforth ruled stably over more than
half of Charlemagnes old realm, with no rivals of remotely the same level of
power among the other kingdoms. This stability by no means diminished in
the thirteen years when Otto III was a child (he died at the age of twenty-two),
during which the kingdom returned, with no unease, to queen-mothers and
even queen-grandmothers, Otto IIs wife, the Byzantine princess Theophanu
(d. 991) and Otto Is wife Adelaide (d. 999) these female rulers indeed faced
less hostility then their Merovingian predecessors.34
Ottonian power, particularly after 962, is thus easily the best comparator to
that of the Carolingians, and the way it worked allows us to see what had by
now changed. The Ottonians still ruled through assemblies, for a start; lay and
ecclesiastical magnates now came to Saxony rather than the Frankish heart-
land, but they certainly came. The kings were closely connected to the church;
their court chaplains routinely became bishops, and they presided over church
councils just as Louis the German and his sons had, councils whose acts often
cited Carolingian conciliar decisions. They went so far as to depose popes in
Rome and to appoint their own, which the Carolingians, however much they
may have been tempted, never did. Their army was the largest in the west, by
far. The Ottonians were also wealthy: they had access to the old Carolingian
royal lands around Aachen and around Frankfurt, to which they added those
around Milan and Pavia when they took Italy, and the Ottonian family power-
block in south-east Saxony and also the profits from the rich silver mines
found south of Goslar in their Saxon heartland in the 960s, which furnished
silver for the coins of the whole of the west. They had the capacity to attract
loyalty and service, therefore, and they did. But they did not rule with the
density of the Carolingian kings. After all, they were based in the old East
Francia, the kingdom which was already less tied into the Carolingian project
under Louis the German; the Carolingian heartland around Aachen was by
now just another duchy. It is significant that they moved around their kingdom
much more than the Carolingians had needed to, simply to make their pres-
ence felt directly, to the extent that, when Otto I spent some years in Italy in the
960s to gain control of it properly, there were hostile reactions back in Saxony.
Conversely, they shifted aristocrats around far less, except Ottonian family
members, and the local societies of the great duchies in Italy and Francia by
now had relatively few interconnections.35
This fits with the fact that, as already noted, the Ottonians did not fully
revive the Carolingian moral project. They patronised intellectuals; the
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mathematician and polymath Gerbert of Aurillac (d. 1003) was one, and
Otto III actually made him pope, as Silvester II, in 999. But Gerberts letters do
not show that he, even, had any commitment to admonition, unlike Agobard
or Hincmar. The Ottonians hardly legislated, even if their church councils did.
The court in Saxony had courtiers who wrote history, poetry and even (in the
work of the nun Hrotsvitha in the royal monastery of Gandersheim) plays,
which show considerable sophistication and classical inspiration (Sallust and
Terence among others), but not political theology.36 This is quite a lot in itself;
the Ottonians deserve a respectable place in the history of intellectual culture.
But no kingdom, by now, could simply resurrect the ambition of the early ninth
century; too much had happened since. The next time a religious revival had
political overtones, under Pope Gregory VII and his successors, it was by no
means closely associated with kingdoms, and indeed it became increasingly
hostile to kings taking on the religious leadership role of rulers like Charlemagne
at all.
One thing had not changed in the tenth century, however: public political
culture. Defined territories dominated by local lordship, based on personal ties
of loyalty and dependence, hardly existed in East Francia and Italy, and were
only beginning in West Francia. East Francia was certainly decentralised; all
the same, as in earlier centuries, Ottonian politics revolved around assemblies,
national and regional/local, and the manoeuvres that were possible inside
them. Much work has been done on the way these manoeuvres worked: in
particular, on how formalised public behaviour in the Ottonian period and
after created the appearance of concord, which both resolved disagreement
and covered it up when it continued. Its Carolingian antecedents have not
always been recognised, because by now, even when such public acts used
ecclesiastical ritual, they were not attached to the penitential imagery of the
ninth century; but they represent a continuation of the public world which we
have seen operating in Francia since the sixth, and which derived from the
powerful governmental structures of the Roman empire before it.37 This is
important. It marks a fundamental difference between the political systems of
the early middle ages and those of later centuries, in which the public sphere
had to be recreated, and always coexisted with a cellular structure of locally
based powers, as we shall see in later chapters.
Slowly, however, the sense of the public did become weaker in the Frankish
world. This development happened first in parts of West Francia, where the
force of the public power was hollowed out from inside in a much more frag-
mented political world, and local lordships became much more important as a
result. The decades around 1000 have often been posed as a tipping point here;
The Carolingian experiment, 7501000 79

although this date (and the tipping point itself) has been hotly debated, and
anyway varied from region to region, the rough timescale still works for me.
Thereafter, in the eleventh century, the political world of the tenth (let alone the
Carolingians) seemed to many by now almost meaningless, for the parameters
of politics had changed so fast, and it was quickly forgotten; even if Carolingian
theological debates were remembered and reused, their political context was
lost.38 In Italy, local lordships were beginning by 1000 too, but the culture of the
public survived much better in the network of cities, where large and well-
organised judicial assemblies still met, until an abrupt crisis in the civil wars of
the later eleventh century. In East Francia, assemblies and a collective commit-
ment continued longest, even if only in the regions where kings held on to
substantial powers; here, however, the public world was also backed up by a
continuing relative incoherence of local power-structures, and would not be
fully undermined until that changed, sometimes as the eleventh century moved
into the twelfth, sometimes later still. These processes were not universal, but
they were quite generalised. Some of them, indeed, had roots in the Carolingian
experiment itself, for the Carolingians were interested in making rules for
everything, and the boundedness of local societies under the control of lords,
which was in general a very eleventh-century development, had a relationship
with these rules.39 But the end of the public and collective legitimacy which the
Merovingians, Carolingians and Ottonians all took for granted, and which the
Carolingian urge for grand moral solutions elevated for a while into a political
art form, marked a radical change for all that. How that worked out we shall see
in Chapter 6.
chapter five

The expansion of Christian Europe,


The Christianisation of northern Europe transforms what we can say about the
continent. In 500, the border of the Roman empire divided the known from the
unknown in Europe. North of that border, what we have is archaeology, which
tells us about many things but by no means all plus the views of Roman
observers looking northwards, which were not only usually ill-informed, but in
most cases were not even trying to give accurate reportage, but, rather, using
the barbarians as a mirror to reflect critiques of Roman society itself. In 800,
for all the events that had happened in between, the situation was not markedly
different. The Franks by now controlled most of Germany north of the Roman
frontier, even if it was not yet fully integrated into the Frankish political system;
we can say a substantial amount about Ireland, and also Anglo-Saxon England,
technically a former Roman province but very different in its social structure
by now; but elsewhere we are still looking northwards from the Rhine and
Danube with the help only of archaeology and inaccurate external documen-
tary sources. In 1100, however, all is changed, for by now we have at least some
written evidence for most places, and we can see much better how societies
worked in the northern half of Europe. When we do, we find that nearly every-
where in the north we can also track political structures which were rather
more complex than they had been in Charlemagnes time.
Christianity did not do that by itself, of course. When different polities in
the north went Christian, mostly what this meant was the conversion of kings
and their entourages the rest of the population followed after, often long after
and that conversion, however genuine, usually only slowly affected the range
of values and practices which each society regarded as normal, meritorious and
moral, for these values were now defined as Christian as well, whether or not
they resembled those of the New Testament.1 But Christianity brought with it
the structures of the church, and with them a commitment to the written word
(vital in order to read the Bible), and to record-keeping (which was the normal

The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 81

means which churches used to protect their lands, newly donated by kings
almost all early documentary records concern the church, everywhere in
northern Europe). Historical narratives soon appeared too, usually in Latin but
also in local languages (in particular in Irish, Norse and Russian), to justify
royal and clerical actions.2 And more followed, for Christianisation was also a
means for kings to introduce at least some of the techniques of ruling which
were used by the two great European powers of the early middle ages, Francia
and Byzantium; indeed, in some cases the possibility of a greater openness to
southern European influence and political procedures was virtually the only
reason why rulers changed religion, and virtually the only change which
Christianity brought. All the same, Christianity did not in itself produce a
more homogeneous Europe; just a Europe in which there was a rather more
widespread interest in more ambitious, but still-distinct, forms of political
power. How the new religion affected each region in the north operates, above
all, as a sort of barium meal, which in each case shows us, not homogeneity, but
Christianity spread across northern Europe more or less from west to east,
slowly, but with greater speed after 950 or so. Ireland was first, in the fifth and
sixth centuries; there followed Pictish Scotland, England and central Germany
in the seventh century, Saxony by force as we have seen after Charlemagnes
conquests in the eighth, Bulgaria, Croatia and Moravia in the ninth, Bohemia
in the tenth, Poland, Rus (covering parts of European Russia and Ukraine) and
Denmark in the late tenth, Norway, Iceland and Hungary in the years around
1000, Sweden more slowly across the eleventh century.3 Only the far north-east
of Europe was left out of this, the Baltic- and Finnish-speaking lands, the
former of which would eventually, in the thirteenth century, turn into the only
large and powerful pagan polity in medieval Europe, Lithuania, before its
grand dukes went Christian as late as 138687. We cannot look at all these in
detail, and our information, even after conversion, is as yet too sketchy for too
many of them, for a survey to be interesting. Here I shall focus in particular on
Ireland, England, Denmark, Norway and Poland, in that order, as illustrations
of the distinct ways in which the new Christian religion was absorbed into, and
illuminates, different sorts of society in the period up to 1100. Bulgaria and
Rus will be added later, in Chapter 9, as the process of conversion northwards
from Byzantium was in some ways separate; and I will survey all the other
European polities, as they appeared in the last quarter of the middle ages, in
Chapter 11, so what happened to them eventually will appear there. In this
chapter, we will also look at some of the major developments in the north
which did not relate to Christianity at all, notably the expansion of the peoples
82 medieval europe

which ended up speaking Slavic languages, and the appearance of Scandinavian

Vikings in Ireland, Britain and Francia.
Before we do that, however, let us look at some of the common elements in
the societies of northern Europe before they converted, as far as we can tell
from our scanty sources, and from what we can read back from later evidence.
What was not in common was language; the northern Europeans spoke nearly
every one of the language groups of modern Europe. Nor was religion; the
paganism of the north was at least as variegated as that of the Roman empire,
with as it seems pantheons of gods in some places, single high gods in
others, more generalised nature cults or shamanism elsewhere, probably over-
lapping; and also ritual run by specialist priesthoods in some places, and by
local political leaders in others.4 But two basic features do seem to be common
to every northern society: the relative weakness of rulership, and the relative
independence of peasantries. As to the first: northern political units were in
general very small indeed, and unstable, for a long time. Ireland had up to 150
kingdoms in 800; Anglo-Saxon England had, as it seems, dozens before some
consolidation can be seen around 600, and even then over ten; Norway prob-
ably one political unit per valley up to the tenth century; in what is now Poland,
or the Sclavenian areas of the Balkans, Frankish and Byzantine sources of the
seventh to tenth centuries list large numbers of ill-defined peoples. Even what
to call such units is hard, for, although some had rulers, titled in different ways,
whom we might call kings, others did not have clearly defined or permanent
rulership at all. Kingdom is therefore not a word we can easily use for some of
these small units. We could use tribe, and I shall do so sometimes, while
rejecting the idea that this implies that such groups are in some way primitive;
but peoples and polities are probably the most usefully vague terms when
generalising over the whole of the north. Assembly politics was a crucial feature
of most of them, as we have seen for the post-Roman kingdoms of the west;
kings where they existed deferred to assemblies quite often (here our clearest
evidence is from Sweden and Norway); and in some places, as with Iceland,
newly settled from Norway in the decades around 900, and the Slavic-speaking
Liutizi of the Oder valley around 1000, all political decisions were taken by
assemblies, and no single person dominated, at least in theory.5 When such
peoples did have rulers, then, there is rarely any sign that they had unmediated
power. Such rulers certainly had armed entourages, and used them for small-
scale domination as well as inter-community warfare, but it is hard to find
many early examples of detailed top-down political interventions, and it is
likely that most rulers had to collaborate and consult with smaller or larger
collective groups in each community.
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 83

This was linked to the fact that the northern half of Europe appears to have
had a largely independent peasantry, that is to say a peasantry who did not
have to deal, to a major extent, with landlords. This does not mean that society
was egalitarian; unfree people existed everywhere, working for lites in largish
numbers, and in ones and twos even for some peasant families, as household
and farm servants. There were also everywhere, as just implied, lites, who
were richer and/or of higher status; rulers normally came from lite strata too.
But these strata did not directly control more than restricted quantities of land;
even in later periods, by which time lite landowning (not least by churches)
had substantially increased, we have in some cases particularly in Scandinavia
evidence that such landowning was not always dominant. This means that
non-lites, i.e. peasants, must have controlled the rest; and in general the
economy of most of the north is likely to have followed the logic of peasant, not
aristocratic, choices and needs for a long time. This is supported by the rarity
of large concentrations of wealth in the early medieval archaeology of the
north, with the significant exception of Denmark, until the Viking period,
which we will come back to. The power of lite individuals was probably some-
times unstable, making them what anthropologists call big men, who might
move back into the peasantry in a later generation if they were not effective
local dealers, or if they had too many children and had to divide their wealth.
Conversely, however, their position was sometimes buttressed, as in Ireland, by
quite elaborate legal hierarchies, and sometimes, as in Scandinavia, they had
local religious and political roles which were inherited.6
Which means: although peasantries were in economic terms largely inde-
pendent, we need to recognise that they had to deal with lites everywhere.
They did so in many different ways. In Ireland, they engaged in elaborate rela-
tionships of clientship with aristocrats, based on gifts of cattle by a lord (not
unlike in most of Europe land), in return for hospitality and political and
military services. In England up to the eighth century, kings and aristocrats
seem to have dominated large defined tracts of land on which peasantries lived,
but they did not do so as landowners; peasants owed small-scale tributes to
lords, perhaps on an occasional basis, rather than paying rent (except for the
unfree, who can be seen already as subject tenants).7 In Iceland, and perhaps
the rest of Scandinavia, free peasants were all part of the followings of local
leaders at assemblies, and paid a fee if they did not go; later, local leaders also
benefited from controlling church tithes. In what became Poland, more-or-less
independent peasants owed tribute to local rulers as in England, but, as it
seems, without defined territories. In the wide forested lands that became
Russia, peasant agriculturalists and fur-trappers owed similar tribute to often
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quite distant lords, such as the khagans of the Bulgars on the Volga, and, later,
the Scandinavian (Rus) princes of Kiev and Novgorod; the political systems of
Russia were very large in geographical area, and more clearly based on domina-
tion by rulers and armed entourages than elsewhere, but local control was not
intense for centuries, and tribute may have been for long intermittent the
peasantry of Russia did not fully lose its landowning autonomy until the early
modern period.8 These different political and economic patterns each contained
potential levers which lites could use to increase their power and wealth, but
this did not as yet by any means automatically happen: it did in England but not
in Ireland, it did in Denmark but not in Sweden, and so on. Indeed, as late as
1100 aristocratic and royal control was only fully developed, among these
northern peoples, in England. How that was we shall see later in the chapter.

* * *
It was, then, a set of small-scale polities, without elaborate socioeconomic hier-
archies, which slowly went Christian across six centuries. But, as I said earlier,
the consequences of Christianisation were very different from place to place.
Ireland was the first. There, the conversion process began already in the fifth
century, when the Roman world was still in place; it was associated from early
on with one important missionary, Patrick, a British Christian who had spent
some time in Ireland as a slave captive and knew it well, as his own writings
show. Patrick and other missionaries had to go from kingdom to kingdom in
order to preach, and had to face out a strong trans-kingdom specialist priest-
hood, the druids, in order to do so. We do not know how they succeeded (all
we can say is that the process took at least a century), or what kings thought
Christianity could bring them perhaps some version of Roman power? But if
so, the timing was wrong, for the western empire was collapsing, and nowhere
more so than in the closest Roman province, Britain, which had seen an
extreme socioeconomic breakdown when the Romans left: in Wales and the
rest of western Britain, the part of the province not conquered by Germanic-
speaking Anglo-Saxon political groupings in the fifth and early sixth centuries,
a dozen kingdoms and more were crystallising.9 In Ireland, far from the new
Christian church acting as a basis for political aggregation, its episcopal and
monastic hierarchies (for monasteries were important in Ireland from early on)
were as fragmented as was the secular political structure; in effect, clerics had
simply replaced the druids as a specialist order. The interest in writing which
the new religion brought extended to another older specialist order, the lawyers;
hence the existence in Ireland, not just of chronicles and records of church
synods, and prose epics later, but also very elaborate legal handbooks. All of
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 85

these allow us to see the degree to which the next centuries simply consisted of
small-scale wars between very small tribal kingdoms, which were at most
arranged in hierarchies, in particular around two very large family groupings
covering several kingdoms each, the i Nill of the centre-north and the
Eganachta of the south-west. The kings were all Christian by now, but their
authority was highly ritualised and bounded by taboos, which doubtless had
pre-Christian roots. It would be hard, in fact, to say what changes Christianity
had made here at all, except for the addition to the political landscape of influ-
ential churches which had some limited connections to the rest of Europe.10
Viking attacks in the ninth century had more of an effect on Ireland than
Christianity did. There were never many Scandinavians in rural Ireland they
mostly settled in coastal trading towns, above all Dublin, which they had
founded; but their raiding forced a greater measure of political aggregation in
order to resist them. We begin from here on to find kings who claimed wider
hegemonies, and even the title of king of Ireland, notably Mel Sechnaill mac
Mele Ruanaid (d. 862) and Brian Bruma (d. 1014); and by the eleventh
century such paramount kings, now sometimes from different dynasties from
before, ruled wider areas than they had done in the past, and had slightly wider
powers within them.11 But that was as far as political aggregation went; the
economic resources which kings had were too restricted, and their infrastruc-
tures too simple, to establish more on a permanent basis. English invasion
under Henry II after 116970, and a partial conquest which brought Henrys
son John the title of lord of Ireland by 1177, introduced a set of Anglo-Norman
lordships which came to resemble contemporary Irish kingdoms as much as
the lordships of England and the continent. The Irish church had, already from
the 1110s, adopted a more continental-style structure, it is true, and Irish kings
(as they were called in Irish-language texts up to 1400 and beyond) recognised
their at least nominal subjection to the English government in Dublin. All the
same, the Gaelic lordships of the late middle ages, and some of the English
ones, still had many of the social and cultural characteristics of the kings of 500
and more years before, and, where they did not, the new developments were
mostly internal ones, rather than imposed from outside. There was now a
dialectic between English political power and these lordships, but apart from
that Ireland was less changed than almost any other part of Europe at the end
of the middle ages.12

* * *
England was dramatically different from this. As we have seen, early Anglo-
Saxon polities were often tiny, as far as we can tell from placenames, inferences
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from later written evidence and archaeology. Even after some aggregation,
there were still ten to fifteen kingdoms when missionaries appeared from
Rome, Francia and Ireland in the early seventh century. As in Ireland, they
were converted one by one across three generations; but here it is much more
obvious that the kings concerned were interested in the cultural and political
connections which Christianity could bring them to the popes in Rome, and
above all to the kings in Francia, their neighbours just over the Channel, who
were richer and more powerful by up to two orders of magnitude. The kings of
Kent, the kingdom closest physically and politically to Francia, converted first,
after 597, thanks to a mission from Rome; the kings of Wessex (i.e. Hampshire
and Berkshire) were converted by a missionary from Francia in the 630s. The
Northumbrian kings in the north were finally converted from Ireland in the
630s, but adopted the continental calculation for Easter at a church council at
Whitby in 664, and after that were more closely linked to Rome and Francia.
The most ambitious kings, those looking for wide hegemonies, were associated
with conversion, with the major exception of Penda of Mercia (d. 655); but,
after Penda was killed in battle with the Northumbrians, Mercian kings went
Christian too. After 670, a new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus
(d. 690), a Byzantine appointed by the pope, did something which no Irish
church leader could dream of yet, and united the bishops of all the Anglo-
Saxon kingdoms into a single hierarchy. The Anglo-Saxon church was, from
then on, fully integrated into that of the rest of western Europe, and increas-
ingly resembled it.13
It cannot be said that seventh-century kings in England resembled their
continental counterparts as yet. They could be personally rich, as royal graves
show (the best-known is Sutton Hoo, deposited around 625), but kings other-
wise had limited resources and very simple governmental powers, based as
elsewhere on assemblies; they seem to have focused their activity, as in Ireland,
on small-scale wars fought by kings and their military entourages. Gradually,
however, they picked up other responsibilities. Some of them legislated, with
law codes resembling those of the continent (although here they were written
in Old English). By the end of the century, they established trading connec-
tions with Francia via a set of ports, Ipswich, London, Hamwic in modern
Southampton, which paralleled those on the coast of the continent such as
Dorestad.14 And in the eighth century, a run of powerful Mercian kings,
thelbald (71657), Offa (75796) and Cenwulf (796821), had close links to
the first Carolingians. Offa not only had a hegemony over southern England
but also absorbed most of its kingdoms into Mercia itself, something again
with few parallels in Ireland by his death, there were only four kingdoms left,
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 87

the others being Northumbria, a by-now larger Wessex, and East Anglia. He
had much more of a visible organisational infrastructure. It was less systematic
than that of the Carolingians, and used the written word rather less, but it
included a control over manpower which allowed Offa to build fortifications in
a number of Mercian towns, and also a 100km-long earthwork, Offas Dyke,
which still exists: the largest-scale European construction since Hadrians Wall,
which delimited the kingdom with relation to the Welsh. In the 760s, he insti-
tuted a new coinage which imitated that of Pippin III a few years earlier (the
latter itself perhaps influenced by earlier English coinage developments); and
after 742 we have documentation for a steady sequence of Mercian church
councils, resembling those of the Franks, which lasted until the 830s.15
Clearly, by 800 England (or at least Mercia) was much more like Francia
than it had been in 600, or even 700. This was a result partially of borrowing,
and partially of developments which had their own internal logic. Both were
facilitated, even though not always caused, by Christianisation. This was
backed up by what was perhaps the most significant socioeconomic change in
the English kingdoms, which probably began under the Mercian hegemony
and moved further on in the ninth century: the slow development of private
landowning, by kings and aristocrats, out of the large tribute-rendering territo-
ries of the past. It was more or less complete in the mid-tenth century, as it
seems, and, when it was, it transformed the English economic environment;
for, from here onwards, village structures crystallised in half the country,
peasant autonomy ended virtually everywhere, and kings, who took over the
largest landholdings, became even more dominant than before including
over an aristocracy which stayed close to the kings, for it benefited from this
development almost as much.16
Mercia did not hold on to its eighth-century dominance. In and after the
820s, it faced civil wars, and Wessex took over many of the former kingdoms
of the south, such as Kent. None of the kingdoms were, however, prepared
for the attacks of Viking raiders and then armies, which began to be serious
in the 850s and which turned, after these armies realised how vulnerable all
the English kingdoms were, into a war of conquest in 86578. Scandinavian
rulers occupied eastern England, ending all the kingdoms except Wessex; they
nearly took over Wessex too, but its king, Alfred (87199), after initial defeat,
regrouped and won against the Vikings in 878, exacting a peace treaty,
which more or less held. Alfred reorganised his people on a war footing,
fortified the major West Saxon towns, and occupied the non-Scandinavian-
controlled southern half of Mercia. This was a basis for his son Edward the
Elder and daughter thelfld (who ruled Mercia) to conquer the Scandinavian
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kingdoms of southern England in the 910s, and for his grandsons, notably
thelstan (92439), to push north as well; by 954 Northumbria was in their
hands, except for the autonomous earldom of Bamburgh in the far north,
which had survived the Viking takeover. This West Saxon conquest unified,
indeed created, England for the first time; already Alfred called himself king of
the Anglo-Saxons, and the term England began, although slowly, to be used
from now on.17
Alfred, thelstan and, later, the latters nephew Edgar (95775) were thus
the real successors of Mercia, and more so, for there is no sign that Offa had
contemplated taking over the whole of England. To run it, they borrowed
heavily from the Franks. Alfred, himself well-educated, had a Frankish intel-
lectual at his court, Grimbald of St-Bertin, and he sponsored a translation
movement of Christian classics, translating some into English himself; the
collective oath which his laws required from all free men matches that of
Charlemagne. Later laws in the tenth century resemble, and even quote from,
Carolingian capitularies, and we know there was at least one copy of these
available in England by the tenth century the Carolingian project was no
longer very active on the continent, as we have seen, so its imagery was above
all available to the English in books. Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023),
who owned the capitulary text, wrote admonitory tracts and moralising law
codes which owed much to Carolingian imagery, and the royal-sponsored
monastic reform movement of Edgars reign was visibly influenced by that of
Louis the Pious. The army-muster and assembly politics of the Anglo-Saxon
past continued to be of crucial importance in tenth-century England, but there
were innovations here too: the appearance of a hierarchy of judicial assemblies
for shires and hundreds, obeying royal instructions, parallels Frankish proce-
dures. The tenth-century kings furthermore married into the Ottonian and
Carolingian families, and intervened in West Frankish politics. These trends
reached their height with Edgar and his son thelred II (9781016); these two
were the effective creators of the strength of the late Anglo-Saxon state, together
with their close aristocratic and ecclesiastical collaborators, which included
Edgars grandmother Eadgifu and thelreds mother lfthryth for both
kings succeeded young, as did most tenth-century English kings, and queen-
mothers were major players. By 1000, England was the most obvious heir of the
whole Carolingian project an irony which Charlemagne could never have
imagined and by now, helped by the fact that it was small, also the most
coherent kingdom in the Latin west. thelred even instituted a land tax, the
first in the west, as we shall see in the next chapter. The roots of this strength
were of course not only Carolingian; they had much to do with the changes in
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 89

landowning already mentioned, and also with the fact that the West Saxon
aristocracy, which gained so much from the conquests, stuck together as an
oligarchy, running the kingdom with the queens when kings were children,
until thelred unwisely brought many of them down. But the ability of the
kings to use Carolingian models clearly helped the sense of confidence which
we get from our tenth-century evidence, and this points up the degree to which
the bet made by seventh-century kings to go Christian, and to enter the world
of continental politics in so doing, had paid off.18

* * *
England was thus the part of northern Europe in which the changes that began
with Christianisation were most total together with Saxony, which was forced
to Christianise by the Franks. It helped that it was, thanks to the sea crossing,
safe from Frankish attack; adopting the Frankish religion could thus be seen
only as advantageous. Other polities, when they could choose, were more
cautious. One of these was Denmark, where the final conversion moment came
much later, in the 960s; but to understand what happened there we will have to
go back in time somewhat. Denmark is good farmland, unlike the rest of
Scandinavia, and can sustain a denser population. Already by the fifth century,
some of its rulers were rich; Gudme, a political centre on the island of Fyn, is
striking for its gold finds, and it was not the only such centre. It is likely that
Danish rulers benefited from the booty taken from the western Roman empire
in its century of crisis, but it at least shows that such rulers were strong enough
to accumulate it. Denmark at that time may have had four or five polities in its
land-area (which included what is now southern Sweden), inside which local
lites, although probably not landowners on any scale, nonetheless had polit-
ical hegemonies. By the eighth century, however, when Denmark gets more
consistently into Frankish sources, it had fewer kingdoms. Godofrid, a king
based in southern Jutland (c. 80410), and later his son Horic I (c. 82754)
were the dominant kings in Denmark, and may perhaps have ruled all of it;
they certainly had a hegemony which extended into Norway and southwards
into what is now north-east Germany, and they had the sort of infrastructure
which, like that of Offa but on a smaller scale, allowed the building of major
earthworks, including one to mark the border with Saxony, the Danevirke.
Godofrid fought off attacks from Charlemagne, and even attacked back; he and
his son controlled and patronised major trading ports, Ribe and Hedeby, which
attracted Frankish goods. This all happened without any input from outside, and
that includes religion; one of the competing kings of the 810s and 820s, Harald
Klak, accepted Christianity in Louis the Piouss court in 826, but his hold on a
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Danish throne did not last a year. Horic I and Horic II (d. after 864) allowed
Frankish missionaries into Denmark, but did not themselves convert. It is
likely that for all these kings Christian conversion was closely connected with
acceptance of Frankish hegemony, which was mostly not part of their plan.19
Denmark was thus unusually centralised by Scandinavian and wider north
European standards, already by 800, and it would stay so throughout the
middle ages. That did not prevent Godofrids kingdom from collapse after the
860s, however, and one cause was probably Vikings. Scandinavian ships were
by the eighth century of high quality, and from the 790s sea-raids began in
Francia and England, with Ireland soon after; they escalated in the 830s and
grew in seriousness from then on. Vikings (the word means pirates) came
from both Denmark and Norway, and they seem to have been merchants, used
to the North Sea trade routes, who seized the opportunities given by unde-
fended coastlines; plus late adolescents who were taking advantage of ship
technology to enjoy themselves freebooting and to accumulate wealth before
they settled down with the addition, in Denmark at least, of exiles from an
increasingly hegemonic royal court, who often acted as leaders. They were
paralleled by another example of merchants seizing opportunities when they
appeared, the successful implantation of Swedish fur-traders as Rus princes in
Kiev and other cities in the river systems of eastern Europe in the ninth century,
whose later history we will look at in Chapter 9. Viking attacks lessened (while
not yet ending) in the tenth century, after the establishment of diaspora king-
doms in England in the later ninth and, on a smaller scale, Ireland, the northern
isles of Scotland, and then the duchy of Normandy in the early tenth century.
The Vikings were also sidetracked by the settlement of Iceland in the period
c. 870930. All the same, for three generations they showed that even the
unstructured polities of the north could have a major effect on established
kingdoms elsewhere. They brought serious wealth back, too, as the archae-
ology of the trading towns of Scandinavia shows, but they also brought insta-
bility; rival Norwegian kings into the eleventh century were usually returning
Vikings, and the failure of the ninth-century kingdom of Denmark, although
undocumented, is most likely to fit with this too.20
It was not until the second quarter of the tenth century that we find a king
ruling a substantial sector of Denmark again, probably from an new family,
Gorm (d. 958); his son Harald Bluetooth (958c. 986) was the first clearly
Christian ruler of the kingdom. Harald was a contemporary of Otto I, whose
power-base was markedly nearer to Denmark than Charlemagnes had been,
and he was converted before 965 by a German missionary who was close to
Ottos brother Brun. It is very likely indeed that Harald was trying to get closer
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 91

to Otto, to use him as a political model and to neutralise him as a threat. The
interesting thing, however, is that, although Danish bishops are documented
from now on, Haralds own rule owed little to them. He established his power
over the whole of Denmark by force, and around 980 built a network of circular
military camps which archaeologists have identified; this seems to be linked
to the stabilisation of his conquest, as well as to a systematic regularisation of
the army and navy. These, plus a long-lasting assembly politics, were the
bases for Danish royal power, not the church. They were sufficient for his son
Svein and grandson Cnut (101435) to conquer England in the 1010s, and to
establish intermittent hegemony in Norway too. Cnut brought English, rather
than German, bishops into Denmark, and made a well-publicised pilgrimage
to Rome in 1027 to coincide with the coronation of the German emperor
Conrad II; he was certainly by now using his place in the Christian European
community for political ends. Even if this wider hegemony soon broke down,
Danish royal power was from now on internally solid by 1100 more solid,
indeed, than in much of the Frankish lands.21 Denmark was, at the end of the
period covered by this chapter, the most powerful kingdom in the north after
England and probably Hungary, and had by the 1070s obtained a standard
episcopal structure; a network of parish churches would soon follow, many of
which survive. It had an aristocracy that more and more conformed to conti-
nental modes of behaviour (although private castles were rare), and we can by
now track, in documents, large-scale landowning by both aristocrats and eccle-
siastics (as well as peasant owners).22 Its subsequent history (kings vs. bishops
vs. aristocrats) can be assimilated to some quite standard European models.
But here, unlike in England, the core of Danish political power owed little to
Christianisation; the church was an add-on, even if an important one, to social
and political developments that were occurring anyway.

* * *
Norway was unified late and unevenly. It seems, given the archaeology, to have
consisted of a network of kingdoms without much hierarchy, separated by
mountains, forests and tracts of upland plateau, across the early middle ages.
The first attempts to conquer the whole are associated with the semi-mythical
Harald Finehair (d. c. 932), one of the local kings, and his sons and grandsons.
Their success was incomplete, however. For the tenth century, we still see in
our Norse-language narrative sources which are late, thirteenth-century,
but which are structured by poetry from a much earlier, often contemporary,
date a network of local societies, focused on assemblies (thingar), which were
made up of autonomous peasantries, even if they tended to be dominated by
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local aristocrats, called earls (jarlar) or landed men. The next two kings who
tried to establish some level of wider power were Olaf Tryggvason (c. 9951000)
and Olaf Haraldsson (101528). Both had become Christian while fighting
abroad, and their expansionism was associated with a deliberate process
of more or less forced conversion of the Norwegian regions, thing by thing,
as well as a courting of aristocrats with gifts and local administrative
positions. So, according to the later historian Snorri Sturluson, the free men
of the Rogaland thing elected their three most eloquent men to counter the
fine words of Olaf Tryggvason, but different speech defects prevented them
from saying a word on the day, so they all were baptised; at the Gulathing
the king bought off an influential local aristocrat by marrying his sister to
the aristocrats kinsman, and then at the thing both local leaders pushed
for Christianity and no-one dared oppose it. At the Frostathing the local
community forewarned, one would suppose, by these events arrived fully
armed, as if for a campaigning thing, and King Olaf therefore did not use
threats, but instead acceded to their demands that he make sacrifice at their
festival at midsummer; when he came there, the king said he would indeed
make a sacrifice, but it would be of the leading men of the community, and
faced with this coup de thtre the latter backed down. These are literary
images, obviously, and they do not tell us how successful the king really was,
but they give a clear sense of how kings might be seen to negotiate with thingar,
and how much negotiating there was indeed to do. Neither Olaf succeeded for
long; both were, as Harald Finehairs family had been in the 970s, brought
down by Danish intervention, although Olaf Haraldssons general high-
handedness also, when he attempted a return to power, resulted in an uprising
of both peasants and aristocrats, and his death in battle at Stiklarstair in 1030.
It is striking that later sources are quite sympathetic to the uprising, even
though Olaf was regarded as a martyred saint almost immediately after the
battle; but it is equally significant that Olaf s sanctity was important to the
risings against Danish rule which restored his son Magnus to power in 1035,
and to the more stable rulership of Olaf s half-brother, another fighter from
abroad, Harald Hard-ruler (104766) and his heirs. Harald developed an aris-
tocrat-led army which he used to suppress opposition, and a Norwegian church
which he kept firmly under his control.23
A simple political narrative of the eleventh century may make it appear that
Norway had by now become much like Denmark; but this was not the case, as
we find out if we pursue Norwegian history past 1100. When civil wars between
royal heirs started in the 1130s, they began, as such wars often did, as confron-
tations between rival kings supported by the armies of groups of regional
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 93

aristocrats; but these armies were as much the reflection of regional as of royal
loyalties, and they increasingly chose their own kings. The most successful
army, around King Sverre (11771202), was not even aristocratic, but origi-
nally a largely peasant army from the far east and then the north, the Birchlegs,
which ended up confronting an army from the south-east, the Croziers, led by
bishops (Sverre defied Innocent III, and died excommunicate) a compromise
peace was not made until the 1220s.24 The fact is that Norway was neither fully
united under kings like Harald Hard-ruler, nor fully dominated by kings and
aristocracy. The politics of regional assemblies continued to be powerful here
later, and peasant participation in them lasted a long time too; the rule of the
kings was never strong, and was contested if it was ambitious. Inside this
decentralised political system, on the other hand, the process of conversion
under the Olafs, and the organisation of the church from the 1030s onwards,
were important tools for kings to use in asserting what authority they could.
They had more of a structural role in the underpinning of royal power than
did Christianity in Denmark, even if that power was weaker. Norwegian
Christianisation, unlike that of England, Denmark or, as we shall see next,
Poland, owed little to the Franks; but the organised church of the mid-eleventh
century and onwards was more continental in form than anything else in the
kingdom, and only a king as charismatic as Sverre could dispense with it.25

* * *
Poland is my last example, and here, as with Denmark, we have to go back
some centuries to understand what Christianisation, which began in the 960s
as in Denmark, really meant. The sixth and seventh centuries saw, right across
east-central Europe (what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia,
Hungary) as in the Balkans, the appearance of communities marked archaeo-
logically by small villages with sunken-floored houses and a very simple mate-
rial culture, plus, usually, cremation cemeteries. These were very small-scale
communities indeed, initially without significant hierarchies; it is striking,
given this, that they managed to expand so consistently, both to the west and to
the south, and it is doubtless a marker of the weakness of all politics in eastern
Europe in the sixth century that they could do so. The people living in them
were called, as we saw in Chapter 3, Sklavenoi by the Byzantines in the Latin
of the Franks, Sclaveni but we cannot automatically assume they spoke Slavic
languages, and many of them certainly did not. Only by the ninth century
can we be fairly sure that in east-central Europe they generally did so, and
from then on we can confidently call them Slavs, but only on linguistic
grounds; they had no unity of identity, and were divided up into very many,
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and probably ever-changing, different tribal peoples. From around 600 on,
however, their neighbours were not always politically weak, and in the case of
the Franks were potentially highly menacing. The Franks never sought seri-
ously to conquer them, but they did raid, from the seventh century to the tenth,
above all for slaves; by the ninth century sclavus began to mean slave in Latin,
and it eventually became the standard word for chattel slave in most western
languages. The Franks also bought slaves from the Slavs themselves (tenth-
century Prague had a slave market), and so did other neighbours of these
communities, the Venetians to the south, the Scandinavians in the Baltic and
Russia, Arab merchants coming in from the east; the armies and bureaucracy
of al-Andalus contained a large contingent of Saqaliba, Slavs, who were origi-
nally slaves. An entire economy developed around the slave trade, which is
mostly only visible archaeologically, either through the distribution of iron
manacles or through the presence of Iranian coins in eastern Europe the
latter of which, by the tenth century, are found in very large numbers. It was
as a reaction to this set of dangers that we first find, in the eighth and ninth
centuries, larger fortified settlements in much of east-central Europe, strong-
holds for some sort of political leaders, who were doubtless both protecting
themselves from attack and providing slaves for attackers. One network of
particularly rich strongholds was the basis for the Moravian kingdom of the
ninth century, until incoming Hungarians destroyed it in the 890s. Hungarian
raids added one more danger for the tribal communities around them.26
It is in this context that in the early tenth century, in the centre of what is
now Poland, a new set of uniform fortifications are attested archaeologically,
while many others were destroyed: a new Slav power was crystallising. It may
not have been called Polonia (the Latin term) yet, but it was by 1000. German
written sources first notice it in the 960s, when its ruler, Mieszko I (d. 992), first
appears fighting Saxon armies. He established in 965 a marriage-alliance with
the neighbouring dukes of Bohemia, whose power had crystallised a genera-
tion earlier and were already Christian; in 966, Mieszko went Christian too,
and in 967 he appears at Otto Is Saxon court, referred to as the emperors
friend in a contemporary source. It is fairly clear what Mieszko was doing: like
Harald of Denmark, but with a much newer and more fragile political base, he
was trying to get accepted as part of the Christian family of rulers they were
usually called dukes in Latin sources in the case of both the Poles and the
Bohemians, for the German emperors were cautious about recognising them
with a stable royal title as yet. This would be a protection against generic raiding
and slaving (though certainly not against more organised wars). It is also
significant that Polonia was surrounded by numerous other smaller Slav
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 95

peoples, who resisted Christianity; they both protected it from Saxon attack
and could be a resource for Mieszkos Piast family for slaving raids on its own
behalf, for the slave trade seems to have been at its height in this period.
Christianisation could also potentially, as we have seen elsewhere, offer the
Piasts an organisational infrastructure which they so far lacked: early Piast
power seems to have consisted more or less exclusively of the duke plus his
warband, who exacted army-service and tribute from surrounding peasant
communities. (An assembly politics is less visible in the Piast realm, unlike in
its smaller neighbours.) And, indeed, for a time things went smoothly; bishops
arrived, mostly from Bohemia; and in 1000 Otto III himself came to Poland, as
we can now call it, and established an archbishopric, and thus a theoretically
autonomous church, in the heartland fortified settlement of Gniezno. Mieszkos
son Bolesaw I the Brave (9921025) built on that, expanding his rule in all
directions, up to the Baltic, in wars against the Germans, and even conquering
Bohemia for a year in 100304. Poland began to look like a successful new
This did not, however, last. After Bolesaws death, his hegemony fell apart;
not only did much of his territory slip out of Piast control, but pagan revolts
destroyed the episcopal infrastructure, which had to be built up again under
Kazimierz I (103958) and his successors.28 The fact was that as yet the Polish
dukes had no political organisation which was capable of holding onto large
tracts of land for more than a few years; the limits to early Piast dynastic
activism here perhaps show parallels more clearly with Ireland than with any
other polities we have looked at so far in this chapter, and Christianisation,
even if this meant attachment to more clearly established church hierarchies,
had not helped with developing that. This did not immediately change. Polish
borders became more stable from now on, and continued to move steadily
outwards again, at a slower and safer speed than they had under Bolesaw I; but
the pattern of a king and immediate entourage, of aristocratic officials and
governors and slightly less privileged knightly warriors, simply collecting
tribute, remained the basic model for some time.
Shifts began to occur in this pattern from the late eleventh and twelfth
centuries. The warrior lite began to be assigned territories in which they could
extract tribute directly; and, slowly, as in England, these developed into landed
estates, which, when held by the emerging aristocracy, could be large. The
church did the same. Peasants became tenants, more and more legally
constrained, although the final subjection of the Polish peasantry was not until
after the Black Death. German settlement, which was protected by German
law, had the same effect from the late twelfth century onwards. But, unlike in
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England, the Piast dukes did not keep on top of this process. Wars between
brothers occupied them in the century after Kazimierz I; and, at the death of
Bolesaw III in 1138, Poland was split up between his four sons, whose heirs
continued to fight, and also divide up power further, for a century and a half.
In this context, too, the fact that we are now in a period in which the western
church was claiming independence from secular authority, as we shall see in
the next chapter, had an effect as well; bishops claimed autonomous rights that
dukes could not easily prevent. By now, Poland was certainly, in many ways,
moving in the direction of western European political patterns (particularly
those of Germany), but not to any form of strong government; and the church
remained of little help to the dukes. The episcopal hierarchy at least prevented
the concept of a common Polish territory from disintegrating, but, unlike in
Norway, it was not a resource for any form of large-scale political power.
Indeed, although by 1150 local powers sovereign dukes, churchmen and
aristocrats were far stronger than they had been in 950, the geographical
scale of the individual political structures of the Polish lands had changed back
to those of two centuries earlier.29

* * *
Thus we see, in these five different regions, five very different instances of the
effect of Christianisation and, above all, the introduction of the hierarchies of
the church on a region of Europe. In Ireland, the church adapted quickly to
the decentralised structure of the Irish kingdoms and simply added one more
complicating element to their interplay. In England, the church was an inte-
grating element from early on, and contributed powerfully to the absorption of
the Mercian and then West Saxon kings into a common western European
(that is to say, Frankish) political and even moral-political framework. In
Denmark, the church contributed much less to a political system that was
already developing in the same direction. In Norway, it contributed substan-
tially to the hegemony, even if a weak one, of kings over isolated and often
unwilling regions. In Poland, even though communications were much easier
on the flat land of the North European Plain, the structures of the church did
not have much of an integrating effect, and royal hegemony broke apart. There
were, therefore, few common patterns here. If we added more north European
regions to this list we would find greater variability still; although Bohemia
might go with Denmark, Hungary partly with Denmark and partly with
England (see Chapter 8), Sweden partly with Poland and partly with Norway,
Scotland first with Ireland then (incompletely) with England,30 these are very
broad categorisations, and the differences between them all were quite as great.
The expansion of Christian Europe, 5001100 97

Are there common trends in these regions at all, though? And here the
answer has to be yes; in fact there were several. One was, as noted at the start of
the chapter, a great increase in our information, with the introduction of a
more systematic writing habit along with Christianisation into every one of
these political systems. Poland is at the extreme here: we know nothing at all
about it, except via archaeology, until three years before Mieszko converted to
Christianity, and after that we do, consistently; but the same is true for all the
others, if more slowly. This does not, it is important to stress, mean that
Christianisation meant an entry into history; we have seen some major histor-
ical developments prior to religious change even in this brief survey, the
Slavicisation of eastern Europe, or the establishment of Scandinavian king-
doms from Dublin to Kiev. But we can say less about these, and, even though
the western Scandinavian diaspora kingdoms are sometimes reasonably well
documented, it was always outsiders who described them, until they went
Christian themselves. A second trend, less linked to Christianity and the
church, was the steady weakening of peasant autonomy all over the northern
lands; even where political power was fragmented, as in Poland and Ireland,
peasants were increasingly subjected to local lords. This was not a uniform
process by any means; in England it was pretty much complete by 1000, but in
Norway (still more so Sweden) there were plenty of autonomous peasants into
the end of the middle ages and beyond; but it was generalised. This is one of the
major changes of the whole of the middle ages in the north. One consequence
was an increase in concentrations of surplus available to lites, and with that
the extension of trading connections. More of England became integrated into
the trading networks of the west after 900. The Baltic, too, developed steadily
as a trade route. Networks of coastal ports appeared along the coast of modern
Poland from the eighth century onwards, and seem to have related at the start
to the fortified settlements of the interior, acting as craft centres and probably
slave entrepts, helped later by the Scandinavian connections to the North Sea
and down the major Russian rivers to Byzantium and the caliphate; but, as
lites became richer, the ports were increasingly foci for exchange of all kinds,
and they would become part of the Hanseatic league in the late middle ages.31
The other general trend, however, was a cultural one, and it was connected
quite directly with the other consequence of Christianisation. This was the
gradual opening of each polity which adopted the new religion (even Ireland
and Norway) to the Frankish and post-Frankish world of western Europe and
its political-cultural practices, including a trend towards common assumptions
about political action. Robert Bartlett has stressed naming practices, the intro-
duction of saints names like John and Franco-German names like Henry all
98 medieval europe

across the north, alongside, and sometimes supplanting, older and more local
names like Brian and thelred and Olaf and Bolesaw; and also the increas-
ingly generalised use of charters as documentation and coins as a means of
exchange.32 In the arena of aristocratic behaviour, too, northern lites slowly
began to adopt Franco-German practices like seals, the ritual of homage,
castles (except in Scandinavia), and, later, coats of arms and the imagery and
literature of chivalry. There were Cistercian monasteries everywhere by 1200.
Latin Europe had expanded to the Arctic circle and the edge of what is now
Russia, and, east of that, Greek Europe, in a parallel set of trends, had done the
same (see Chapter 9). Some of the same pressures were shared by each region,
too, such as the impact of the claims of the international papacy (see Chapter
8) or, later, the new political claims of parliaments (see Chapter 12). It is
tempting to see this as a generalised homogenisation: it might, that is, be seen
as the creation of a common European history, with only differences in detail
between the different polities of the continent. This would, however, be an illu-
sion; the very distinct histories sketched out here continued to underlie distinct
developments for the rest of the middle ages and well beyond. Above all, in
northern Europe (here the major exceptions are England and Hungary) the
fiscal systems of the later medieval centuries were much weaker than in western
and south-eastern Europe, which reflected long-standing differences in the
infrastructure of royal power, and which meant that, however much kings and
aristocrats wished to behave like those in France, they in fact did not have the
wealth to do so. This we will look at in more detail in Chapter 11.
chapter six

Reshaping western Europe,


At the end of Chapter 4, I proposed that there was a major difference between
the public political world of the early middle ages in western Europe and a
smaller-scale, more personalised, lordship-based politics which marked later
centuries. The latter came in slowly from around 1000 onwards, starting in
West Francia; by 1100 it dominated in many places. Although larger-scale
political systems returned after that, local lordships did not go away; their pres-
ence is one of the key elements which mark out the second half of the middle
ages in the west as different from the first half. How that new politics devel-
oped is the main theme of this chapter. For an idea of what I mean by it,
however, let us start with a text, which gives us a sense of what the new political
parameters of the period could look like.
In the 1020s, Hugh, lord of Lusignan in western France, had a long memo-
rial written, which listed all the injustices done to him by his senior (lord),
William V, count of Poitou and duke of Aquitaine. William promised him
wives which he then did not allow him to marry; he did not let Hugh inherit
lands he was entitled to; he acted without Hughs advice; he did not help Hugh
when others sought to take his lands (Hugh said to William I never lose except
because of my fidelity to you; William was unsympathetic: You are mine to do
my will); he did not stop castles being built to Hughs detriment; he had Hughs
new castles burnt down. Hugh complained at every stage, and William prom-
ised his support at every stage, but never kept his promises. In the end Hugh
defied the count, in the hearing of all, except for his city and his own person,
and they fought a small war; only then did the count-duke agree to come to
terms and give Hugh part of his withheld inheritance, in return for very solemn
oaths, and Hughs oath of fidelity. We do not know how long it lasted, but at
least Hugh was reassured enough to have his plangent text stop there.1
Hugh poses himself as a victim in this memorial, but in reality was far
from that; he was one of Williams most powerful and potentially dangerous

100 medieval europe

aristocratic dependants, and there will have been another side to this story. But
it is striking how far his whole text revolves around a personal bond, posed
as one of trust and betrayal. It indeed resembles French verse epics of the
twelfth century, such as that of the emblematically bad lord Raoul de Cambrai,
who burned down a nunnery with his faithful vassal Berniers mother in it, and
then in the end hit Bernier with a spear-shaft, before Bernier could bear
formally to break his bond of fidelity.2 This was, then, a political structure
dependent on personal relationships. It was also a very localised one, all taking
place in Poitou, with other counts (such as the count of Anjou, 100km to the
north) mentioned almost as foreign powers. William was in fact one of the
most successful regional rulers of early-eleventh-century France, as Hughs
memorial reluctantly testifies; but his territory was a network of the castles of
others, even if he was active enough in trying to bring as many of them as
possible under his control. And, although he claimed full power over his aris-
tocratic dependants, when he did make peace with them he had to make prom-
ises back to them as well. Personal relationships of this kind had old roots, but
they had never before characterised the whole of politics.3 Whatever this world
was, it was not the world of Charlemagne or Otto I.
Western and southern Europe in 1000 had a fairly clear hierarchy of states.
Al-Andalus and Byzantium were, as we saw in Chapter 3, easily the most
powerful political systems, at the south-west and south-east corners of the
continent, particularly as the force of the Francia of Charlemagne had become
substantially diminished. Francia was by now indeed permanently divided;
although nothing which we could call national consciousness existed in its
two main successor-states, East and West Francia, we can by now call them
Germany and France for convenience, and I shall do so henceforth.4 Of the
two, Germany was clearly dominant, with king-emperors who ruled Germany
and Italy; the French kings were by contrast very weak, and the only other
polity in Latin Europe with a real political solidity was England, a kingdom not
much larger than a German duchy. This hierarchy might have looked stable
enough, but was far from that, as the next century showed. Already by 1030
al-Andalus had, after a twenty-year civil war, broken up into about thirty
successor-states; in 1071, the large armies of the Seljuq Turks defeated the
Byzantines, and the latter permanently lost control over the eastern third of the
Byzantine empire, modern central Turkey. After 1077 the German empire, too,
lapsed into civil war and Italy, in particular, went its separate way. England
maintained its coherence, but had to face two violent conquests. The French
kings did not become any more powerful, but France was a cockpit of ambi-
tious and prickly lords like Hugh of Lusignan, and some of them, in particular
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 101

those from Normandy, acting as mercenaries and freelance fighters, managed

in the second half of the eleventh century to conquer southern Italy from its
previous rulers, and by 1100 even Palestine, at the end of the First Crusade.
Elsewhere in Europe, new kingdoms emerged from nowhere as strong political
powers, notably Hungary and Castile. And, on top of all this, the western
church, led by the popes of Rome for the first time, was beginning to pose itself
as an independent moral authority to rival that of the traditional secular
powers. These political developments, and their causes and contexts, frame the
major social changes we need to discuss. What happened to Byzantium we will
see later, in Chapter 9; Hungary and Castile will appear in Chapter 8. In this
chapter we will look at what happened in what had been Carolingian or
Carolingian-influenced western Europe, Germany, Italy, France and England
in particular, with a political narrative first and a structural discussion after,
before ending with the changes in the western church and the Normans in the
Germany was in 1000 by far the largest and militarily strongest western
power, even if it was never as internally coherent as its Carolingian predecessor,
let alone the tax-based states of the south. (Now that I am using modern
country names, it is worth adding that the German kingdom/empire continued
to include, throughout the middle ages, what we would now call the Low
Countries, Switzerland and Austria.) The Ottonian king-emperors of the tenth
century, based in Saxony in the German north, were rich as we have seen, with
lands and silver-mining in Saxony, and landed bases also in the Rhineland and
in northern Italy. Germany was hard to control in depth, given its forests and
its few roads the only real northsouth route was along the Rhine but these
three linked the north and the south of the power of the Ottonians, at least.
After 1024 they were succeeded by female-line heirs, the Salians, an aristo-
cratic family from the Rhineland, and that area was further strengthened as a
political focus for the king-emperors; they moved around Germany much as
the Ottonians had, but by now went rarely either to Italy (except to be crowned
emperor) or to most of Saxony. Italy stayed more or less loyal, although its
powerful cities henceforth showed a greater tendency to revolt; Saxony,
however, now that it was less of a royal power-centre, felt its distance from the
rest of the kingdom and became more and more resistant to the tight royal
control of the silver-mine area; by 1073 it too was in open revolt.5
The first two Salian king-emperors, Conrad II and Henry III (103756),
managed to keep their German hegemony solid. They did so by focusing its
aristocracy on the great ceremonial assemblies around the king, by being
generous with land-giving as far as they could, and by moving militarily to
102 medieval europe

bring down disloyal dukes when necessary, all traditional procedures. But after
1056 Henry IIIs heir Henry IV (his long reign lasted until 1106) was a child,
and royal hegemony weakened fast. Henry IV as an adult, after 1065, moved
quickly to revive it, but he was a heavy-handed operator, with an interest in
innovation as with the development (alongside other lords) of new methods
of keeping control over his lands, which were increasingly entrusted to minis-
teriales, local figures of knightly but technically unfree status who would find it
harder to break away. Not only the Saxons, but also the southern dukes, became
opposed to him. When Henry fell out with Pope Gregory VII in 107576, the
pope threatened Henry with deposition. Henry moved quickly to Italy, and in
one of the famous images of the middle ages stood three days and nights in the
snow outside the castle of Canossa in January 1077 until the pope, who was
inside, accepted his penance; but the German dukes were not reconciled, and
deposed him anyway in 1077, electing a rival. Civil war in Germany lasted for
twenty years; after 1080, when relations with Gregory had finally broken down
again, it began in Italy too. Henry won in Germany, where he was fighting rival
claimants to kingship. In Italy, where he was fighting pro-papal cities and lords
(notably the powerful marquise of Tuscany, Matilda, one of whose main castles
was Canossa), there was more of a stand-off, and the result was that by 1100
there was no effective imperial presence at all; here the hegemony of the king-
emperors, which had lasted even though they were so seldom south of the
Alps, had virtually ended, and the cities began to fend for themselves, as we will
see later. Under Henrys weaker successors, Germany began to be more region-
alised too, although imperial protagonism was still recognised, and under
Frederick I Barbarossa (115290) could be temporarily revived.6
On one level, France had a less difficult history in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries, for it had a single line of uncontested kings, the Capetians, who ruled
in unbroken father-to-son succession from 987 to 1316 and even after that, it
managed a sequence of male-line heirs who provided kings until 1848, a unique
achievement for Europe, and only surpassed in the world by the succession in
Japan. But these kings, in this period, were reduced to a royal heartland which
stretched 120km from Paris to Orlans on the Loire, plus the rights of appoint-
ment over bishops in a wider area of northern France. The rest of the kingdom
was in effect autonomous, with dukes and counts, such as William V of
Aquitaine whom we met at the start of this chapter, establishing their own rule
with almost no reference to the king. Twelfth-century kings could occasionally
call out an army from nearly the whole kingdom, as Louis VI (110837) did
against a threatened German invasion in 1124, or else be recognised as judges
well outside their power-base, as Louis VII (d. 1180) did in his well-attended
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 103

royal court of 1155. The bonds of loyalty to the king were steadily being recog-
nised as stronger again by the twelfth century, which, as we saw in Chapter 1,
Louis VII exploited with great effect against Henry II of England, by now ruler
of much of France by marriage and inheritance, in Toulouse in 1159. But it
would not be until the wealth of fast-expanding Paris became a real royal
resource in the late twelfth century, that Louis VIIs son Philip II Augustus
could move against Henry IIs son John and conquer the core of his French
lands in 120204, which established the king of France as the major player in his
own kingdom for the first time in nearly 300 years. The history of France in the
period of this chapter is thus the separate histories of its duchies and counties.
Some of these such as Flanders, Normandy, Anjou and Toulouse, joined by
the royal heartland in the twelfth century remained relatively coherent
political units: their rulers were sufficiently fearsome, and managed to keep
strategic control of enough castles and lands, to remain at the centre of the
system of landed rewards. As a result, lesser lords like Hugh of Lusignan were
kept, however unwillingly, onside. Others Champagne, Burgundy, and, after
William V, much of Aquitaine too fragmented, sometimes quite rapidly at the
start of the eleventh century, into steadily smaller and smaller territories, ending
up in some cases as no more than clusters of autonomous lordships ruled by
lords who had a handful of castles each.7
Only England kept its coherence in this period. Renewed Scandinavian
attacks between 990 and the 1010s did, it is true, lead to the temporary expul-
sion of King thelred II (d. 1016), another king who was heavy-handed in
unpopular and often unsuccessful ways, and some social breakdown; but by
1016 the Danish kings had conquered the country outright, creating a
combined English and Danish kingdom under Cnut (d. 1035), as we saw in the
last chapter. Cnut established himself as an effective English-style king in
England, creating his own aristocracy out of a mix of English and Danish fami-
lies. After 1042, there was a return to tradition under Edward the Confessor,
thelreds son, but he had to fight his corner against Cnuts aristocrats, and at
his death in 1066 one of them succeeded him as Harold II. The tension around
that allowed William the Bastard, duke of Normandy, who had no serious
claim to the throne at all, to invade and defeat Harold at Hastings later in the
same year. William, by now the Conqueror to historians (d. 1087), after the
end of the 1060s dispossessed almost the entire English aristocracy, replacing
them with French families: perhaps the most complete destruction of a ruling
class there has ever been in Europe, up to 1917.8
The interesting thing is, however, that throughout all this the English state
remained organised and the king hegemonic. William I inherited what was by
104 medieval europe

western standards a tight political system, based on large-scale royal land-

owning, and a land tax (originally instituted by thelred to pay off the Danes,
and carried on by Cnut), which William re-established. As its ruling class
became French in genealogy, language and values, state effectiveness was not
changed; William indeed engaged in some very specific and demonstrative
political acts, not least the huge Domesday survey of 108586, again without
parallel in Latin Europe, to record the agricultural and landholding detail of
nearly the whole country, which impressed and appalled contemporaries and
has absorbed historians ever since. Royal wealth and ruthlessness during two
generations of Norman kings, and the fragmentation of royal grants to the new
aristocracy (which meant that few of them had a single local power-base), plus
the coherence of a county-based system which still involved local judicial
assemblies in an early medieval tradition, allowed the state also to remain
effective during a civil war between two grandchildren of William I in the
1140s. The heir of one of them, Henry II, count of Anjou (115489), emerged
victorious; he ruled England, and a large collection of French duchies and
counties as we have seen, fairly tightly for thirty-five years, an achievement not
lessened by our knowledge that his son would lose half of them only fifteen
years later.9

* * *
This is, for the most part, a history of political breakdown. The power of French
historiography in the second half of the twentieth century meant that the
French experience was taken very widely to be normal. Although, as this brief
survey shows, it was not, there has as a result been a substantial debate since
1990 as to the significance of that French experience. This has been seen by
many as the feudal revolution, with a sharp increase in violence and a privati-
sation of political power, and by a few even as the real end of the ancient world;
but such views have been attacked by a second group of historians, who argue
that the changes around 1000 (or at later dates in the eleventh century) were a
marginal shift, since the basic structures of political power remained the same,
even though on a smaller scale, as also did aristocratic values such as loyalty to
lords and honour, which hardly changed across the early and central middle
The second group has brought much-needed nuance to our understanding
of what really changed in the eleventh century; all the same, I remain, broadly,
with the first. Smaller-scale political structures, especially if they are based on
militarised foci such as castles, do tend to produce more capillary violence
everywhere, even if it is (as it usually was) quite carefully targeted. The heavily
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 105

personalised political relationships shown in the complaint of Hugh of

Lusignan are also only possible when power is so localised that every actor is
known to every other, as was far from the case in the Carolingian world, even
if (as we saw earlier) personal relationships and also violence certainly
existed then too. The sort of political power shown by our eleventh-century
sources for France, even when exercised by dukes and counts directly, was
heavily based on the establishment of sets of increasingly specific aristocratic
rights over small territories, including powers of justice, and rights to tolls and
dues of all kinds, which are called by French historians the seigneurie banale;
these were under their private control and could even be bought and sold sepa-
rately, as well as fought over. Their holders were frequently small-scale lords,
called in our sources milites, knights, who held one or two castles each: very
unlike the great aristocrats of the Carolingian period, who could have dozens
of estates. And, as an overarching and crucial development, this power, as its
parameters became more local, became more clearly bounded and formalised.
From now on, it mattered where the edge of a lordship was, for outside it a lord
could not so easily claim dues, or rights to judge; and the rights involved in
lordship themselves became more defined. For the same reason, if a lord
claimed lordship over a village, it increasingly mattered how far the territory of
that village extended; village territories, and also parishes, thus became more
clearly marked out on the ground too. Castles, which were more common by
the eleventh century, became the new points of power in a landscape, of a type
which no Carolingian aristocrat had needed, for he had so many estates and so
seldom used them as a local power-base as opposed, that is, to using their
rents to allow him to pay for political action at a regional or royal level. The
French peasantry were increasingly caged inside the cellular structure of local
power, and subjected, on top of rents, to lordly exactions which were often
heavy, sometimes arbitrary, and always designed to underpin direct domina-
tion. Such exactions could also increase, as the agricultural economy produced
more surplus in an age of population increase and the clearance of land: at least
until peasants resisted this collectively, as we shall see in the next chapter.11
These were major changes, for they all privileged the local. Up to the elev-
enth century, kings and also regional rulers, dukes, counts and bishops
could rule from the top down, using the old Roman imagery of public power
and the early medieval collective legitimation which was assembly politics,
without considering in a very organised way what was going on locally, unless
it involved disloyalty, or an injustice which was so clamorous that it actually
reached their ears. The small-scale lordships of the late eleventh and twelfth
centuries in France could not afford to be so detached; exactly whom they
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controlled, and how, mattered much more. It is important to recognise that this
shift was the result of two separate processes, for the weakening of the public
world of kings and assemblies, and the growth of local lordships, had distinct
histories. On the other hand, each of course affected the other: the slow devel-
opment of local power structures meant that the public world was not the
only possible location for political action, which especially mattered if rulers
faced difficulties; conversely, the weakening of the public framing for politics
forced local powers to become better defined, creating the cellular structure
of the future. And both of these developments fit what Marc Bloch meant
by the fragmentation of powers: they were an always-possible consequence
of the politics of land, in a world where the state was not separately supported
by taxation.12 A localised world was far from an inevitable consequence of
the politics of land; but the possibilities were always there if rulers were not
secure, and watchful. Although its development was very variable in both
dating and intensity here, as elsewhere in this book, we cannot deal with all
its complexities a cellular structure for politics can henceforth be tracked
even in relatively strong regional units in France such as the counties of
Toulouse and Flanders, or again with William V of Aquitaine in his dealings
with Hugh of Lusignan; rulers of all kinds had to recognise lordships as the
building blocks of their political authority.
This was the French pattern, which we can easily see as an extreme; but how
far did it extend elsewhere? Some of it did. There were castles all over western
Europe by 1100, for example although not Byzantium, which had a very
different development. They were rare until the end of the ninth century
(Merovingian and Carolingian aristocratic residences were mostly unforti-
fied), but from then on the fortification habit spread slowly and steadily
everywhere, even, particularly after 1066, in perennially strong polities such
as England: initially as the foci for royal power for the most part (as with the
well-excavated Ottonian palace site of Tilleda), but increasingly as the must-
have for every local lord, large or small, in Germany, Italy, Christian Spain, as
in France.13 But the breakdown of political power elsewhere did not happen as
it did in France. In England, as also in twelfth-century Castile, castle-holding
lords remained fully part of a king-centred political structure, for kings were so
rich that cutting oneself off from their patronage remained a losing option,
even if one survived royal wrath and armed attack. There, either private
seigneuries were internally divided and interspersed with the lands of the king
(as in Castile), or they did not develop at all. This was above all the case in
England, where, apart from during the civil wars of the 1140s, kings kept
control of justice over the free, and left lords to claim judicial rights only over
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 107

the unfree even if that left them with substantial powers, for the unfree were
numerous in England, and became more numerous in the late twelfth century
as the freeunfree boundary moved.14 England, indeed, kept most of the
Carolingian-style public political structure it had developed in the later tenth
century, with greater success than anywhere else, although royal assemblies
were no longer the legitimating venues they had been before the Norman
Germany did not develop quite as France did, either. The king-emperors
were, for a start, powerful at least some of the time and in some parts of the
country, up to the 1240s, and had to be reckoned with, for their army remained
substantial; an assembly politics centred on the kings also persisted, and assem-
blies were major loci for political acts of all kinds. They had a relatively
restricted administrative infrastructure beyond that; but German dukes were
not, as far as we can see, much better-rooted in their large duchies, and,
under them, counts in many cases did not have unitary counties, but, rather,
fragmented sets of rights. For the most part, then, neither dukes nor counts
could have easily constructed strong territorial power-bases in the absence of
kings in the way William V of Aquitaine did. Nor were other aristocratic
and ecclesiastical landowners any more focused; they usually had widely scat-
tered lands. When the power of kings faltered, as at the beginning and then the
end of Henry IVs reign, or in the 1140s, or above all from the 1240s onwards,
local powers took some time to consolidate; and when they did, they tended
not to develop territorialised seigneuries banales of a French type. We find
instead intersecting accumulations of hereditary land (perhaps focused on a
family monastery), royal castles held in fief, rights to take market tolls, and a
German speciality strong local power derived from holding the advocacy
over ecclesiastical land, the right to run justice on these properties, which
German bishops and abbots routinely ceded to hereditary lay advocates.15 A
well-studied example is the Zhringen power network which took shape in the
twelfth century around the Black Forest and in what is now northern
Switzerland; it was an ad hoc collection of rights by a local lordly family
(including the title of duke), but it was solid, right up to 1218, when the
Zhringen family died out.16 Already-existing dukes and counts were begin-
ning to do the same themselves. All the same, developments such as this
certainly represented political localisation. There has been little work
comparing Germany and France, but there are more parallels between the two
than are always recognised.17 German local power consisted of more of a
network of overlapping authorities, from the ever more distant king down to
local lords and advocates, rather than the relative boundedness of many French
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lordships, but the effect was otherwise similar. In the late middle ages, German
local lordship became more bounded too, and then we find hundreds of auton-
omous rural (and also urban) powers inside the confines of the overarching
and increasingly theoretical kingdom of Germany.
Northern Italy, finally, was partially different again. Local lordships slowly
developed there too, in the eleventh century in particular, inside the Lombard
and Carolingian network of counties, and marches such as Tuscany (which
maintained a political structure of a Carolingian type without a break right up
to the wars of the 1080s and 1090s); such lordships were based on collections
of private property (including castles), hereditary fiefs, and rights to take the
tithes of rural parishes. It was not until those wars, however, that public power
went into crisis, and, in reaction, such lordships began to turn themselves into
coherent and bounded territories, based on judicial rights over all the inhabit-
ants, owners and tenants alike, which were called in Latin dominatus loci,
domination over a locality, and which were a close Italian equivalent to the
French seigneurie banale. This happened up to a century after their appearance
in France, but the similarity of development is here clear, even if such lordships
tended to be weaker and to make lighter demands than in France.18 What made
Italy different was that cities were here large and powerful, because most rural
lords lived inside their walls which in itself lessened substantially the
autonomy of lordships; from 1100 urban centres were also expanding because
the economy was rapidly becoming more complex. When the kingdom of Italy
lost its force, it was above all the cities which took over local ruling.
Autonomous Italian cities developed their own forms of collective and
deliberative assembly. These were different from the judicial assemblies of the
Carolingian and post-Carolingian past, but they made the same assumptions
about the close link between political legitimacy and large gatherings of people.
In the early twelfth century we find, more and more, that these assemblies, and
cities as a whole, were being ruled over by annually changing collectives of
ruling officials called consuls: in Genoa and Pisa by 1110, in Milan and the
other cities of Lombardy by the 1130s, in the Veneto by the 1140s. Such men
came from the richest civic lites, of landowners and sometimes merchants,
usually including some castle-owning lords; they were not a new social group.
But their collective activity was new, and by the mid-twelfth century they called
themselves communes, a word which explicitly marks that collectivity. Such
communes claimed powers over the old Carolingian county network, which in
Italy was city-based, and by 1200 most of them had re-established their power
over the rural lordships of their territory. Only a handful of rural lords stood
out, in less urbanised areas. These communes look very different from the
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 109

rural lordships of France or Germany or, indeed, Italy itself, and they certainly
came to feel they were; by the 1130s they were beginning to use the word
public to describe their power, and they were beginning to legislate on their
own behalf. But it is worth also stressing that they were, like any rural lordship,
the result of an initially highly ad hoc and informal, indeed insecure and
uneasy, localisation of power, which became more formalised in the context of
royal weakness, and that their growing concern for judicial rights located
inside political boundaries (which they were keen to fight over, often bloodily)
matched that of seigneuries banales as well.19
So western Europe was not all like France; but, equally, it can be seen that,
across a long eleventh century, everywhere except England experienced a set of
developments which at least parallel those of France. Why did it happen then?
As I have argued, the crisis of public power itself made local solutions more
attractive; but it is also the case that they were by now in themselves more
stable. In part, this is simply because the checks and balances of the Carolingian
world were now less in evidence, and local power-bases could be created more
easily. But there were also by now social changes within the aristocratic strata
which made ever-smaller lordships possible. In the Carolingian world, real
aristocratic status was regarded as belonging to a relative few, essentially the
families which might be appointed as counts; smaller-scale military figures
would probably hold a couple of estates and have a local prosperity, but their
status was tightly bound up with their membership of comital or episcopal
entourages, and they had no chance of going it alone. By the eleventh century,
however, if you had a castle you did have a local military status which was
largely your own. Your ancestors were very often members of Carolingian
entourages, and occasionally even rich peasants made good more recently; the
social group which we can call aristocratic had widened as a result. Your own
lord, a count or a duke, could still hope to dominate you, but had to deal with
you, as with William V and Hugh of Lusignan. Indeed, if your lord was insuf-
ficiently feared or insufficiently successful, you might well start to act increas-
ingly autonomously, to go for your own local power, however small-scale: to
create your own local lordship, that is to say, with its own rules and demands.
This was new; there had been plenty of periods of weak or chaotic rule in
earlier centuries without autonomous lordships developing, to more than a
small extent. Nor did they always do so now; a determined count or duke, and
indeed king, could hold this process off, or reverse it William the Bastard
managed it for example after the civil wars which marked his accession as a
child in Normandy in 1035,20 and in England the 1140s civil war could also be
recovered from, quite easily in fact. But from now on this process was a possible
110 medieval europe

development; a weak ruler, or a civil war, could set it off anywhere, and there
were a good few of these. When this happened, the process was very often not
reversed, and formalised units of local power appeared as a result, making up a
cellular structure which later rulers would have to deal with in new ways, if
they wished to rebuild their own polities.

* * *
Local concerns and creative power-building also marked out two of the partic-
ular novelties of the eleventh century, which go beyond the country-by-country
sociopolitical discussions which this chapter has focused on up to now; both
fit well into, and add to, the general picture which I have just set out. They are
the ecclesiastical reform movement and the Norman/French expansion into
southern Italy and Palestine. Let us look at them in turn.
The history of Christian Europe has been studded with religious reform
movements; they, so to speak, come with the territory of a religion based on an
extremely long sacred text, the Bible, some of whose sections advocate moral
values opposed to those of any political system or religious structure which has
ever existed, and which attentive readers can discover and rediscover at any
time. (The Quran has had a similar effect, forceful but intermittent, in the
Muslim world.) In the Carolingian world, as we saw in Chapter 4, religious and
political reform as we call it, although medieval theorists did not, hence the
inverted commas for the noun was important; it was in the hands of emperors
and kings, acting with and often directing collectivities of bishops and abbots,
and indeed lay aristocrats. As political power became more localised in the
tenth century, however, bishops began to look for a legitimacy which was not
all focused on royal power (they often found it in Gregory the Greats work21);
councils of bishops from now on more often met without royal involvement,
too. And from then on, particularly in the eleventh century, reforming groups
became more locally diverse and did not always look to central powers either,
even if their preoccupations ascetic monasticism, the sexual purity of the
clergy, the spiritual education of the laity, or the evil of simony, that is to say
giving money in exchange for ecclesiastical office were rarely all that new.
That localisation of religious action did have results, however, which were
rather different from those of previous centuries. Let us look at some examples,
region by region, ending with the activity of the popes in late-eleventh-century
Rome, which, at least at the outset, was as localised as any of the others, although
soon it changed the parameters of religious action much more generally.
In the 960s, a monastic reform movement took off in England, aiming to
introduce a more rigorous monastic life. It was heavily patronised, and indeed
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 111

effectively controlled, by the king of England, Edgar, and his immediate entou-
rage, and was thus (and intentionally) the heir to the centralised monastic
reorganisation initiated by Louis the Pious in Francia 150 years before. But
the English movement did not just focus on monasteries: it was also substan-
tially involved with the reform of cathedral churches, whose canons became
monks and whose bishops were often monks themselves. This gave the English
church a monastic flavour that had little or no parallel elsewhere in Europe,
and which certainly did not look to the Carolingians; the English thought it up
for themselves.22
An example of a quite different development was the independent status of
Cluny, a monastery founded in 910 on the edge of Burgundy by William the
Pious, duke of Aquitaine, but subjected, not to the dukes, but to the pope in
Rome. Cluny, a monastery with a famously demanding monastic practice, has
often had the reputation of being a forerunner of the wholly autonomous inter-
national church of the later middle ages, but its abbots, while usually not from
major aristocratic families and also not closely connected to any local political
power (it helped that Cluny lay geographically in something of a power
vacuum), had very close links with some of the other lay rulers of the age,
beginning with Alberic, prince of Rome (d. 954), patron of Abbot Odo in the
930s. Clunys own landholdings indeed swelled prodigiously through pious
gifts from lay families everywhere, and the monastery was built and rebuilt on
a huge scale as a result. Clunys real novelty was that it came to be the mother
house for monasteries across half of western Europe, whose main loyalties
were to Cluny, and not to any local figure, whether bishop or count; it created
an international network of identity and elaborate liturgical ritual which cut
across all traditional political boundaries, and which would be the model for
plenty of monastic orders later as well.23
Between these two examples, of close association with lay authority in
England and a certain degree of autonomy from it in Burgundy, was the church
of Upper Lotharingia (now Lorraine), on the western edge of the German
kingdom. Here bishops, of Metz or Toul, were independent protagonists, acting
to reform local monasteries like Gorze outside Metz or Saint-vre in Toul
without any lay intermediary; but these bishops were themselves personally
linked to the German imperial court. Bruno of Toul, for example (bishop from
1026 to 1051), revived Saint-vre and nearby Moyenmoutier; but Bruno was of
the highest local aristocracy, related to the king-emperor Conrad II (who
appointed him bishop), to the dukes of Upper Lotharingia, and to the bishop of
nearby Metz, and would never have thought of himself as separate from impe-
rial authority.24 His world was a reforming one, for sure, again focused on
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monastic rigour, but in a specific Lotharingian context, which, like England

and Burgundy, was developing its own protocols and assumptions.
Councils or synods of bishops still existed everywhere; but now, frequently,
they were not only called independently of secular authorities, but also more
critical of those authorities. One well-known example of this was the Peace of
God assemblies of central and southern France in the late tenth century and
early eleventh. These were essentially local church councils, called by bishops,
with a strong lay participation as well. Their surviving proceedings lay a good
deal of weight on the depredations of local lords (especially against church
land), which they sought to limit by the swearing of oaths, by the establishment
of rules which extended church sanctuary, and, later, by restricting lay warfare
to certain days of the week. It has been easy to fit these assemblies into the
narrative of the feudal revolution, although there has, once again, been a
retreat from this more recently: the peace movement was by no means hostile
to lords, who were involved with it throughout; the attacks on lay violence can
easily be seen as standard rhetoric (although this does not mean that such
violence did not occur). The same is the case for their role in the narrative of
church reform; certainly, bishops were here giving autonomous guidance to
lay society, in an unusual way, but counts and indeed kings could appropriate
the practice as well, and did so quite quickly. More important here, is that they
were a specifically regional response to perceived social problems, for the
assemblies hardly extended outside central-southern France. In a sense, in fact,
the Peace of God assemblies were imitations of Carolingian placitum assem-
blies, but this time called by local powers: a Carolingian tradition was here in
effect reinvented, from below, and only in one region.25
This bottom-up moralistic protagonism could even be pursued by people
without formal office. The Pataria in Milan in the years between 1057 and 1075
is a good example. This was a popular purist religious movement, led by both
(lesser) clergy and laymen, which was violently opposed to clerical marriage
and to simony in the Milanese church; it was one of the first of such move-
ments to be largely run by the laity. It split the city, for married clerics were a
long-standing feature of the very elaborate ecclesiastical traditions of Milan,
and were as fiercely defended as they were attacked; the accusations of simony
against Archbishop Guido da Velate (d. 1071) were also somewhat artificial,
although the movement managed to expel him from the city. It is nonetheless
evident that in Milan, the fear of simony, as an act which not only menaced but
polluted the church, was strongly rooted in popular values; Milan, by far the
largest city in northern Italy and by now commercially active, knew how sales
worked, and some of its inhabitants by now saw simony, often defended as an
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 113

exchange of favours, to be a sale of goods and thus inappropriate for a pure

church. Simony and clerical marriage, as noted earlier, were not recent preoc-
cupations, at least of clerical reformers; the Milanesi were not voicing new
fears. But the moral panic attached to them was much more intense by now;
and the Pataria was also new in that it was a popular movement, with, again, a
specifically local base. There were similar movements in some Italian cities, but
in others the laity were indifferent or hostile, and even in Milan a counterattack
by traditionalist aristocrats in 1075 resulted in the death of the lay Patarene
leader Erlembaldo and the eclipse of the movement.26 It can be added that,
although the Pataria was strongly supported by the papacy in the 1060s and
1070s, its largely lay focus brought its own dangers: what if lay people began to
make their own decisions about, for example, doctrine? When they did in the
eleventh century, it was more likely that they would be considered heretics,
rather than in the moral vanguard of the church: as at Arras in France in 1024
or Monforte in north-west Italy in 1028, when lay people decided that baptism
(in the former case), or papal supremacy (in the latter), was unnecessary, and
bishops condemned them for it.27 We will come back to the implications of this
tendency, which became much more widespread in the west after 1150, in
Chapter 8; but it is worth adding here that, when it did, Patarene became a
synonym for heretic too. Although Pope Urban II made Erlembaldo a saint in
1095, there was an undercurrent of danger about the Patarene moment which
was not forgotten.
My last and longest example is Rome itself, another localised development
which had, however, more substantial implications. In 1046, the papacy faced
one of its recurrent crises over who was the legitimate pope, with, less usually,
three rivals at the same time. The German king Henry III deposed two of them
and forced a third, Gregory VI, to resign at the Synod of Sutri, held as he was
coming to Rome to be crowned emperor, and appointed his own pope, a
German, as Clement II. German kings had deposed popes before, several times
since Otto I first did so in 963; appointing non-Roman popes was less common,
although Otto III had done it in 996 and 999. Henry, however, ensured the
appointment of five Germans in succession, and from now on native Roman
popes were a rarity until late in the twelfth century; by the 1050s, the college of
cardinals was changing fast as well, as they too became overwhelmingly non-
Roman from now on. The third of Henrys popes, the longest-lived and most
effective, was Bishop Bruno of Toul, who became Pope Leo IX (104954). He
was, as we have seen, close to the imperial court, but was also an active oppo-
nent of simony, and he used his new papal office to hold a series of synods
across Europe, from Rome to Reims in France, in which simony was at the top
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of his agenda. At Reims in 1049, where there was no lay participation (the king
of France refused to come), Leo had all the bishops and abbots who attended
state at the start that they had not paid money for their office: a coup de thtre
which forced several to confess that they had, and some were removed from
office as a result.28
Reims inaugurated a new period of church reform, one in which, for the
first time, papal participation was important, under Leo, Alexander II (1061
73), and Gregory VII (107385), the former Archdeacon Hildebrand, whose
charisma, ambition and lack of compromise have led to the whole reform
movement being called Gregorian by many. It was wider than that, however;
what characterised this period was the degree to which reformers of all kinds
converged on Rome: Lotharingians in the entourage of Leo, such as the anti-
simoniac extremist Humbert of Moyenmoutier; north Italians like the monastic
founder Pier Damiani (both became cardinals); and reform-minded members
of the Roman clergy itself, notably Hildebrand. What held them together was
the belief that the church had become polluted by simony, which, as we have
already seen, was the moral panic of the age, as well as by clerical sexuality,
which particularly preoccupied Pier Damiani for him in particular, clerical
sex was equivalent to incest, and he wrote at length about its dangers, including
a long and strikingly detailed tract against homosexual acts, which was too
extreme for Leo IX.29 The problem was: what actually was simony? Buying
church office was its obvious meaning, but even then Gregory VI, who was
forced to resign for buying the papacy from Benedict IX, saw himself as a
reformer (Hildebrand was his protg), and seems to have thought of it rather
as paying off a disreputable predecessor. Others did indeed see such payments
as part of the gift exchange of favours, which was part of all medieval (and
not just medieval) politics. Conversely, on the purist side, some thought that
the pollution of simony could extend to any lay involvement in ecclesiastical
elections which was considerable, for emperors and kings routinely chose
bishops and indeed popes, as we have just seen, and always had done; and they
also participated in church rituals of consecration and investiture. Humbert of
Moyenmoutier argued that lay investiture of clerics was simoniac in the 1050s,
for example, although his views were not picked up by anyone else for some
time. Gregory VII did so in the end, in 1078, with a decree against lay investi-
ture at his spring synod of that year, but only after his troubles with Henry IV
had already begun;30 because of this eventual choice by Gregory, the contest
between emperor and pope has often been seen as a struggle over who should
control the ritual of investiture. But that in reality was only a minor element in
a wider set of issues about the spiritual distinctiveness, authority and autonomy
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 115

of the clergy, which, it became steadily clearer, was what the panic over simony
(and also clerical sex) was really about. Although arguments about investiture
heightened the temperature of debate very greatly at the end of the century, it
is significant that it could be compromised over when a measure of peace was
established, in 1122.
The imperial-backed reforms of Leo IX could be seen as part of a tradition
that went back into the Carolingian period. When Henry III died in 1056,
however, the reformers began to divide. Some were comfortable with a move-
ment that continued to look to the imperial court; others saw reforming
protagonism as being the responsibility of clerics alone. The latter group, led
by Hildebrand/Gregory, eventually won out, although with difficulty. After
Gregory fell out definitively with Henry IV (initially over the crisis in Milan,
not any theological issue), Henry took Rome in 1084 and had his own pope,
Clement III (10801100), consecrated, with a good deal of church support.
The lay lites of Rome had mostly backed Gregory, but when the latters allies,
the Normans of southern Italy, burned down parts of the city in order to allow
him to escape, the majority of Romans changed sides, and Clement held Rome
against his rivals for most of the time until his death.31 Gregorys second
successor Urban II (108899) had almost no Roman base at all. If his side won
widespread support in the end, enough to take over Rome again in the last year
of both rival popes, it was because of a further novelty in his practice, one with
parallels to Leo IX (and for that matter to the Peace assemblies) but in a very
different political situation: the holding of church councils, with substantial lay
participation but emphatically under clerical direction, in a number of places
across northern Italy and France. These included that triumph of charismatic
leadership (but also careful planning), the Council of Clermont of 1095, where
Urban preached the First Crusade.32 After 1100, resistance to the Gregory
Urban faction receded quite quickly. By the time we reach the twelfth century,
in fact, the autonomy of the clergy from secular powers was more and more
taken for granted, and married clergy slowly became less common in most of
western Europe as well.33 (By contrast, in Byzantium, which was not affected by
these events, they remained normal.) The clericallay spiritual divide was
henceforth far more marked, and the supremacy of the pope over the ecclesi-
astical hierarchy of western Europe was also increasingly accepted in theory,
at least. The moralised royal political initiatives of Charlemagne and Louis the
Pious were henceforth much rarer in this new environment; popes, from now
on, thought that such initiatives ought to come from them, and that kings,
although they should certainly obey popes, could now be seen as having a
more specifically secular role than they had ever had before.
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Even today, a surprising number of historians turn their accounts of the

church reform period of the later eleventh century into a triumphal narrative,
with goodies and baddies even, remarkably, historians writing in the
Protestant tradition, a tradition which regards clerical marriage and lay partic-
ipation in the choice of ecclesiastics as actively virtuous. This is not, or should
not be, the point; rather, we need to understand how come, and in what frame-
work, the Gregorian side of the reform movement won. And here we need to
come back to the localisation of politics. Reform, of whatever type, was in the
mind of every ambitious ecclesiastic of the eleventh century (as, indeed, in
most periods); but its impetus, as we have seen, was by now not necessarily
connected with any central authority neither emperor nor pope, indeed.
Because practical politics of every kind had moved towards the local, reform
had its own local logics and dynamics, as well as different local foci, as we have
seen with monasticism, the Peace of God and the Pataria, and now papal Rome
itself. And that continued. Councils of bishops were called everywhere; monas-
teries were reformed and new purist monastic orders were founded every-
where; individual bishops and dioceses could also pursue their own agendas of
spiritual reform and pastoral care (a well-studied example is Verona); these
processes carried on autonomously, and also slightly differently everywhere.34
And this meant that no-one could easily stop them, too. Henry IV and his allies
could keep popes in the Gregorian tradition out of Rome, but they could not
prevent Gregory, and still more Urban, from linking themselves to the local
reform initiatives of the rest of the west. Conversely, however, the real chal-
lenge these popes faced was to be taken seriously outside Rome as players even
when they faced papal rivals (England, among others, remained neutral for
much of the civil war period). There was a tradition of invoking the power of
papal confirmations and judgements which they could draw on, one which
Gregory strongly developed; but that was fine only as long as they were accepted
as the legitimate popes.
For the first time, then, papal legitimacy was put to the test of local (lite)
opinion, Europe-wide.35 Urban, who was French and also a Cluniac monk, was
however popular in France, a popularity which the excitement of the Clermont
council only extended. France, added to Christian Spain (whose interest in
what German emperors did was always limited), plus at least half of north-
central Italy and the Normans in southern Italy, was enough to balance, and
more than balance, the strong support for Clement III in most of Germany and
some of Italy. However, once the Gregory Urban succession won out, with
Paschal II (10991118), a far less adept dealer but one who had no rivals after
1105, the problem for him and his successors was that church reform would
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 117

still continue along local lines, often without looking more than nominally to
popes. The twelfth-century international church indeed shows us some major
political operators, most notably Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), whose reli-
gious legitimacy did not come from the papal tradition at all. Bernard, a monk
and monastic founder from the austere Cistercian movement in France, estab-
lished his moral authority on the back of the rapid success of Cistercian monas-
ticism in the early twelfth century, his own extensive writings, his public
asceticism, and a charismatic and very uncompromising personality. He domi-
nated the church politics of northern France for twenty-five years without
needing any support from the popes indeed, in the next wave of papal
turmoil, in the 1130s1140s, it was popes themselves who needed Bernard, not
vice versa.36 The authority of Bernard shows up as well as anything the degree
to which the church was as localised as was secular politics in this period. It is
true that such a local base was not at all new for charismatic religious figures;
it is also true that the way Bernard leveraged it into influence across much of
France and Italy shows that even informal ecclesiastical authority was begin-
ning to be transnational in its potential. But his was still a bottom-up achieve-
ment. In later centuries, future Bernards would run into much more trouble
from popes.
The papal monarchy of the twelfth century (a phrase of modern histo-
rians, not a contemporary one) was, then, in some respects like that of the king
of France, who was recognised throughout his kingdom but without much
chance of controlling what went on in it. At the level of local religiosity, papal
power would never be determinant, either: the tension between centralisation
and local diversity marked the rest of the middle ages and beyond. But it turned
out to be possible for the papacy to come to establish a considerable element of
control for all that, just as the king of France eventually would. How that
happened we shall see later.

* * *
One of the most intriguing developments of the eleventh century was the
Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily, from a series of different powers:
the Byzantine provincial government of Puglia and Calabria, the Arab amirs of
Sicily, and the dukes and princes of six autonomous states on the Italian main-
land, looking to old Lombard or Byzantine capitals in Benevento, Salerno,
Naples and others. It is often linked to the Norman conquest of England, but in
fact was its opposite: the English conquest was an organised military operation
by the Norman duke and his army, hanging on a single battle and complete in
under five years; that in Italy was the work of a set of soldiers of fortune from
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the lesser Norman nobility and it took two generations of casual violence to
achieve. It is a thus a marker of the possibilities of the localised politics which
we have amply seen develop across much of western Europe in this chapter.
There is at least no doubt that the division of southern Italy between so
many powers was older than this: it dated to the ninth century, in fact, when
civil war broke up the old Lombard principality of Benevento, and urban
leaders in Naples and neighbouring towns grabbed their own independence
from Byzantium as well. What happened is that Normans and other northern
French began to be recruited as mercenaries in the continuous desultory
wars between these powers in the early decades of the eleventh century, and
realised that there were opportunities in establishing their own lordships. The
first of these was at Aversa north of Naples in 1030, which the duke of Naples
still theoretically controlled; by the 1040s, however, different Norman groups
were aiming at conquest, in all areas of the mainland south. In 1053 they
defeated Leo IX at the head of a papal army aiming to push them out, and by
the end of the decade most of the mainland was under Norman control. This
was not, however, anything resembling a unified structure. Different lords
established their own lordships, both large and small, on a great variety of
bases. Sometimes these simply replaced the political structures of their prede-
cessors; sometimes they resembled northern seigneuries banales, based on both
expropriated land and localised judicial rights; sometimes in the ex-Byzantine
and, later, ex-Arab lands the new rulers partitioned the taxation rights which
had been the fiscal basis of the previous rgime, and their lordships were based
on that rather than on landholding. In the 1060s to 1080s they conquered Sicily
as well, in a slightly more organised way, and Sicily was ruled centrally there-
after, largely through an Arab and (above all) Greek official class. Apart from
there, however, the next generation simply replaced the fighting of the conquest
with clashes between the Normans themselves.37
Around 1100, then, the Norman south was a miscellany of highly localised
political units. If they looked to a few superior lords, the prince of Capua or the
duke of Puglia, who were often related to each other (the two most powerful
Norman rulers in the 1080s, Robert Guiscard in Puglia and Salerno and Roger
I in Sicily, were brothers from the Hauteville family), they were far from closely
controlled by them. The Normans made little attempt at state-building here, as
yet. It is indeed hard to avoid the impression that most of the time they were
simply having fun: they had a reputation for oppression and imaginative
brutality which they strove to live up to (people surrendered more easily),38
and doing it in the sun of southern Italy was also probably more fun than doing
it in Hauteville, one of Normandys more miserable villages. But once again a
Reshaping western Europe, 10001150 119

localisation of politics, an even greater one than southern Italy had previously
had, was the result. The Normans managed to impose that transnationally,
across the frontiers which there had previously been, the strong state system of
the former Byzantine provinces merging into the land-based system of the
Lombard polities: all of them simply became Norman lordships. It is in this
respect that the history of southern Italy has interesting parallels with the
history of the western European church: in both cases sharply changing local
practices came to be linked across traditional boundaries, and, even if
remaining localised, were all the stronger for that transnational linkage.
Strongly regional and local practices were, in fact, exportable still further.
European division did not by any means undermine the capacity of European
powers of all kinds to extend themselves well outside their regions of origin.
The First Crusade, above all, linking the church with excited and unscrupulous
secular powers, pushed outward very fast. After a request for help from the
Byzantine emperor Alexios I (see Chapter 9), Urban II preached it in 109596
at Clermont and elsewhere, linking the image of religious pilgrimage to a long-
standing rhetorical desire to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Even Urban
must have been surprised at the speed with which this was taken up, for recruit-
ment began among the counts and castle lords of France at once, extending
also to Germany (where a millenarian peasant contingent was also numerous)
and, slightly later, Italy. Armies set off as early as the following spring, and
continued to do so for several years more. Few got very far Hungary and what
is now Turkey saw most come to grief but the largest contingent, leaving in
August 1096, mostly French, made it through a very cautious Byzantine empire
and eventually, against the odds, took Antioch and then Jerusalem in 1098
99.39 The story of this success has been told often, in varying tones of enthu-
siasm, notwithstanding the massacres of the communities of Rhineland Jews
which accompanied it in 1096, and of Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of
Jerusalem in 1099; although the damage European adventurism can do to the
Middle East is by now rather better known, given the history of the grim
decades since the Second World War, this knowledge has had only a minority
effect on crusades historiography.40 What is important here, however, is that
the First Crusade was not at all led by kings, but rather by dukes and counts
(of Toulouse, Normandy, Flanders among others, as well as Guiscards son
Bohemond), bishops and lesser lords, plus Italian city leaders: by, that is, the
local lay power brokers discussed in this chapter. Notwithstanding their
genuine religious fervour, they bickered throughout the journey, and some of
them left early; a few, like Bohemond (who ended up ruler of Antioch), were as
interested in land-taking as in actually getting to Jerusalem. But those who
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made it were then able to impose in the east just the sort of cellular political
structure they knew in France or Italy, bringing fractious colonial-style lord-
ships to Syria and Palestine which matched anything experienced in southern
Italy, for the century of their power up to Saladins nearly complete reconquest
in 118788.41

* * *
To summarise. In the eleventh century, political power became more localised,
and more carefully bounded. Its holders were often smaller figures than any
Carolingian aristocrat would have recognised as an equal. Lords could be crea-
tive in its construction, as indeed could cities, grabbing rights in a way that was
initially illegal, but, once accepted, defined a new legality. This power structure
was new; it maintained plenty of continuities with the past (particularly in a
network of aristocratic values which hardly changed), but from now on this
sort of practical power depended on a knowledge of, and a concern for, detailed
rights and relationships on the ground. Powerful kingship would, certainly, be
reconstructed, and often quite soon: by Roger II of Sicily in the 1120s1140s,
by Henry II of England in the 1150s1160s, by Frederick Barbarossa in
Germany and (with less success) in northern Italy in the 1150s1170s, by popes
from Innocent II to Innocent III across the second half of the same century,
and then by Philip II of France in the 1200s1210s. But when that power was
reconstructed by such rulers, and others, it would be based on this cellular
structure of de facto powers, and not or only to a small extent on the prac-
tices and royal ideologies of the past.42 The public world which the Carolingians
and Ottonians had inherited from the Roman empire was gone almost every-
where, and had to be rebuilt, on different bases. This is why this set of develop-
ments mark a turning point, in western Europe at least: later medieval political
processes all presupposed it. How that reconstruction took place we shall look
at in Chapter 8.
chapter seven

The long economic boom,


Here is what we know about the economic expansion of the central middle
ages, in a nutshell. Across the period 9501300, the population of Europe
multiplied by up to three times; there was an extensive process of land clear-
ance, with woodland and rough pasture converted to arable to feed those new
mouths; towns greatly expanded in size and number throughout the continent,
making goods (above all clothing and metalwork) with an artisanal profession-
alism that had been much rarer earlier, and selling them far more widely; the
use of coins (in this period, overwhelmingly in silver except in Byzantium)
became much more common in daily exchange; agricultural specialisms began
to develop; the movement of goods and people became, over all, far more
extensive, particularly after 1150 or so; and the exchange complexity of western
and southern Europe began to extend to the north as well. By medieval stand-
ards, this was an economic boom. A much larger population can simply mean
that everyone gets poorer; not in this period, however, when there is no doubt
that Europes economy was much more complex at the end of it than at the
beginning, although there are signs, as we shall see, of some regions reaching a
population ceiling in the early fourteenth century.1
Here, however, is what we dont know: why that demographic expansion
actually began (and when); how it really related to the economic changes of the
period;2 when long-distance exchanges of products became important (Italian
merchants could be found in Flanders by the 1120s, but when did their pres-
ence become economically significant?); how much any region in Europe really
gained from such exchanges, apart from the two great urban epicentres,
Flanders and northern Italy; which social groups gained most from the growth
in economic complexity, and whether that changed; how far production
depended on peasant (i.e. large-scale) rather than aristocratic (i.e. restricted)
demand; or the relative importance of agricultural products as against manu-
factured goods in the European market, seen as a whole. We do not even really

122 medieval europe

know such crucial basic details as what goods were actually made in twelfth-
century Latin Europes largest city, Milan, and where they were sold, before
Genoese commercial records (which capture only a small part of them) begin
to be dense around 1190;3 when it was that English wool became the basic
raw material for the Flemish cloth towns, let alone how and why; or why it is
that the development of silver mines in this period, a literal licence to print
money can so curiously seldom be seen to have had much of an effect on the
prosperity of the wider region in which the silver was.
Our lack of knowledge here has several causes. It is of course the result of
problems of evidence, for these are things our sources very seldom tell us
directly about, at least before 1300; we will never get the full picture here, in
fact, although future archaeological work will certainly help with some of it.
But other causes derive from the failings of historians. One is the decline in
fashionability of the large-scale serial work on medieval archive sets, which is
the only way to get at patterns of development reliably (many current accounts
present as fact claims that go back to speculations made by pioneers in
economic history in the 1960s and often well before, which have never been
seriously tested).4 Another, an important one, is the fact that few people, except
in some very localised contexts, have ever seriously tried to create an economic
model of how the medieval world worked and fitted together.5 In most cases,
instead, they have borrowed models from the industrialised or industrialising
world and applied them to a historical period where things worked very differ-
ently, with at best discussions of how particular medieval socioeconomic struc-
tures or political policies blocked a development which supposedly might
otherwise have been more similar to that in, say, 1750.
These are problems that cannot be solved here, obviously. But they have to
be borne in mind as we proceed. For the fact of this economic expansion is of
essential importance if we want to understand the whole dynamic of medieval
society in these central centuries and indeed later; but when it is explored here
it must be recognised how far basic data and interpretations are missing. Some
general points are clear: the fact that Paris and the Paris basin became unusu-
ally economically active in the twelfth century, for example, is a basic context
for the growth of the Paris schools and, later, university (for there was no point
attracting students if there was no infrastructure to feed them), as well as for
the capacity of Philip II of France, with only a restricted territory under his
direct control, to match the resources of John of England in their wars in the
early thirteenth century, and also for the concentration of resources which
produced the striking density of very expensive new Gothic cathedrals in every
city of northern France. But, having said that, we must be honest and admit
The long economic boom, 9501300 123

that we do not really understand how the economy of the Paris region worked
in this period.6 At every stage we have to see that economic changes had impor-
tant consequences, while recognising that we often cannot tell exactly how.
That will be the tension underlying this whole chapter. But it is still better than
trying to characterise the social, political, cultural shifts in Europe, particularly
after 1150, without taking that economic context into consideration at all.
Demographic expansion, then: at least there is no doubt it happened, for a
sense of there being steadily more people pervades our documentary records.
The scale of it cannot be tracked exactly, however. The only half-reliable figures
come from the English Domesday survey of 1086, and then from the English poll
tax records of 1377, which come from after the Black Death, the plague which
killed between a third and a half of Europeans between 1347 and 1352, and came
back in waves later the European economy was certainly different after that,
and we will look at the post-1350 period separately, in Chapter 11. England
seems to have had a population of around or above 2 million in 1086 and slightly
more in 1377, so clearly had much more before the Black Death. How much
more depends on much less complete and more locally based data, but around 5
million (an eleventh of what it is today) is a rough estimate for around 1300, the
likely moment of peak population, and 1.5 million is conceivable for the tenth
century, when the period of demographic expansion may have started; hence the
calculation of a threefold multiplication. Rougher guesses for elsewhere in
Europe fit this too; and the estate surveys of the Carolingian period give hints
that in Francia the process may perhaps have already begun in the ninth century.
The demographic rise probably reached its peak between 1150 and 1300.7
If a population triples in size, even if over 300 years, then peasants always,
as we have seen, the huge majority of the population have to react. They can
do so by limiting births (late marriage, stringent rules around sex, abortion,
child abandonment), although evidently did not do so, or not enough, in this
period. They can farm the land more efficiently, with more systematic crop
rotations, better ploughs (which were available, but expensive), and more
careful plantings of crops or pasturing of animals on soils which suit them best,
even if this means having to exchange your wheat for someone elses barley or
sheep. They can clear nearby woodlands and moorlands and add to the arable
fields at their disposal. Or they can move to towns, or even emigrate, to regions
where there is more empty space (in Europe, this usually meant clearing wood-
land again). European peasants visibly did all these things between 950 and
1300. Peasants tend not to choose work-intensive farming methods, even
where they are available, unless they have to, but this was a period when they
did have to (they had more manpower, too, precisely because families were
124 medieval europe

bigger). Organised three-field crop rotation, for example, slowly spread across
north-west Europe, just as irrigation spread across al-Andalus and Arab-ruled
Sicily, and, later, northern Italy.8 This intensification developed even more as
time went on; not only irrigation in the south but also the introduction of new
crops in the north made fallow years unnecessary in a few areas, such as parts
of Norfolk and Flanders. There is also widespread evidence for small-scale
clearance in already-settled land, as new village- and field-names referring to
former woodland show throughout Europe, plus good evidence for land recla-
mation in marshy areas such as the deltas of the Rhine and the Po.9 And urban
expansion is well documented throughout Europe in this period, as we shall
see, which always means immigration, as no town before the modern period
had more births than deaths (they were always unhealthy places almost none
of them had even rudimentary sewage systems, for example and they were
also home to the destitute, immigrants who had not been lucky, who died
sooner); although moving to towns simply meant that peasants somewhere
else had to grow the crops to sell to feed the new urban inhabitants.
What came rather slower was long-distance emigration. Peasants are highly
averse to risk, and going off to seek ones fortune in unknown countries has
seldom appealed to them, before the great nineteenth-century colonisations.
But the extension of the European political network eastwards, through the
conquest and/or Christianisation of the Slav and Hungarian lands (see above,
Chapter 5), themselves often underpopulated, made it possible to see that a
future in what is now Poland, for example, was less like stepping off the edge of
the map. Indeed, once people began to move east (after around 1150, which in
itself shows that it was slow to start), they were actively trawled for across
Germany and the Low Countries by professional middlemen, employed by
lords for that purpose; in return for a leading role in the subsequent settlement,
their task was to collect up new settlers, offering them low rents and a stable
village environment. The Germanisation of large portions of eastern Europe
followed, only reversed in the forced population movements of the late 1940s.
The settlers largely cleared land that had been forest before, but frequently
expropriated previous inhabitants land as well, often with the active support of
local powers, who were indeed by this point often themselves German. That is
to say, this was not at all the colonisation of wholly virgin soil. (Still less were the
other major colonial movements of the period, in Spain and Syria/Palestine
quite heavily populated regions.) But nonetheless, it did lead to a further gradual
extension of the arable land of Europe.10
One wonders whether, once European peasants realised that to maintain
their living conditions in an age of population increase they would have to
The long economic boom, 9501300 125

intensify their labour and extend their fields, there was ever a moment in which
they were ahead of the game, and were actually better off. The answers are
uncertain and contradictory. Clearing local woodland, for example, was not
wholly beneficial; if one cleared it all, one would run short of firewood and
building materials, not to speak of resources of wood and waste like swine-
pasture and fruits/nuts; a grain monoculture made for a more monotonous
and less healthy diet for a thirteenth-century peasant family than had been
normal in, say, 900.11 It is at least the case, however it is clear in the archae-
ology that villages became more coherently planned and houses became
better made across this period in many parts of Europe; in much of Italy in the
twelfth century they moved from wood to stone, for example, and, although
this was rarer in the north (where wood is so widely available and easy to use),
stone foundations became slowly more common, as did more sophisticated
wood construction techniques such as timber framing: all of these are signs of
greater local expertise, and the resources to pay for it, that is to say village-level
prosperity.12 By the thirteenth century, too, excavation shows that peasants
more often possessed relatively standardised metalwork such as knives, and
indeed dress ornaments (as also good-quality pottery jugs and bowls, although
that was an older trend; note that archaeology tells us less about cloth), which
indicates a greater access to markets which were themselves more numerous.
I will come back to markets later. They are not, however, only signs of
peasant prosperity, for the steady commercialisation of society can be accom-
panied by increased landlordly pressure, and indeed often is. And this last
remark also shifts the focus for us. The last three paragraphs have said little
about lords; but most peasants, at least in the densely settled lands of the west
and south, had landlords. In western Europe, only Italy and Spain had large
numbers of free landowning peasants, although there were smaller regions
where the same was true, such as the Alps, or the coastal regions of the
Netherlands and northern Germany. As we saw in Chapter 5, there were
certainly more in northern Europe, but the trend in nearly every part of the
north in this period was towards the greater power of large landowners too.
Lords were indeed in many cases swift to react to the possibilities of taking
more from peasants, if peasants became capable of growing more; and the
pressure on peasants from the rise in population was everywhere less imme-
diate, perhaps indeed less visible, than the ever-present pressure on them from
lordly exactions. It might indeed be argued that the pressure of the latter was
more important for the Europe-wide agricultural expansion, commercialisa-
tion and growth in productivity than was population growth on its own. I do
not think so for these centuries, for we can also track this expansion in regions
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of Europe (such as parts of Italy) where rents and dues did not yet increase
significantly. But demography, the pressure of lords and the increase in agrarian
productivity and commercialisation all worked on each other to produce a
more complex economy in nearly every region of Europe.
The trends in the pressure of lords on peasants did not all move in the same
direction in this central medieval period, all the same. Carolingian estate
management frequently focused on the establishment of bipartite estates or
manors, with peasants both paying rent and doing regular labour service on a
demesne which was run entirely for the benefit of the lord: manors were never
universal, but they represented a state-of-the-art management of an estate for
profit.13 Early medieval estates also had often large numbers of unfree people
on them with no legal rights, who owed high rents and most of the labour, and
who were sharply differentiated from free peasants who had lighter burdens
(see above, Chapter 1). These two patterns became steadily less important
across our period, and by the thirteenth century they were only really common
in England, where indeed they had seen a revival at the end of the twelfth.
Elsewhere in Europe, manors had either never existed (in Spain or Scandinavia
or the east) or else were losing coherence rapidly (already in the tenth century
in Italy, by the twelfth in France) in favour of more flexible patterns of exploita-
tion surviving demesnes in France in the thirteenth century, for example,
were largely cultivated by wage labour. Agricultural labour service, even in
small quantities, still tended to mark unfree legal status, but both dropped back
substantially in much of Europe across the period, even if neither had entirely
ended before the Black Death. Rent-paying was the overwhelmingly dominant
form of tenant obligations thereafter.14
Conversely, the development of political rights over the peasantry, the
seigneurie banale (see Chapter 6) rights to take dues for justice, pasturing and
wood rights and the use of the mill, and rights to require labour for transport,
castle-building and castle guard, as well as extra ad hoc and sometimes large
exactions (in France, where these were particularly common, they were called
taille, a cut) could build up to substantial extra demands on top of rent, and
could be exacted by some lords not just from direct tenants but also from free
landowning peasants in the territory of a castle. France, western Germany,
northern Spain and Italy were the main regions where these patterns could be
found. Peasants subjected to all of this were sometimes so dependent that, as
also in England, they were called by the old Latin word for slave, servus, serf in
French. Whether or not legally free in origin, they had drifted back into a prac-
tical unfreedom, often in the twelfth century; this development was further
sharpened by the greater local use of written law, which often reintroduced or
The long economic boom, 9501300 127

reinforced older conceptions of unfreedom. With all the dues available in a

seigneurial rgime, manorial labour service was hardly necessary any more;
and such dues (in particular taille and its equivalents) were also easier to
increase than rents, which tended quickly to become fixed.15
Historians writing on the medieval peasantry until recently saw this set of
developments as proof that peasants for the most part paid all their surplus,
beyond bare subsistence, to lords, and remained close to destitution as a result.
It is now rather less clear that this was always the case, even if we set aside the
growing scale of the colonised areas of Europe, where settlers had much lower
rents. Even in England, with its high and expanding indices of real unfreedom,
rents were not in the thirteenth century at all as high as they could have been,
given what we know of grain yields and subletting.16 And in Italy, Spain and
France, one important trend of the twelfth century and early thirteenth was for
peasant communities to band together to obtain franchise charters, documents
in which the lord agreed to abandon unpredictable demands, and set out levels
of exaction which were much more restricted. We can only reconstruct the
context of such agreements from the outside; the texts tend to give us very
sententious reasons, the good will of the lord and suchlike, for their enactment.
A grandiloquent example is the agreement of 1207 made by the lord of
Tintinnano, a small fortified village in southern Tuscany, to stabilise rents

Since Rome, which was once ruler and capital of the entire world, reached
so far by holding to these three: equity, justice and liberty . . . so I, Guido
Medico, . . . rector for the affairs of Tintinnano, considering the state of the
castle and of the lords and faithful men who live there [which had gone]
from good to bad and from bad to worse, because of inequity, injustice and
servitude, and was by now reduced to nothing . . . I proposed to bring the
situation back to its earlier good state and to improve it if I could. And I saw
that there was no other way to fulfil this process unless the customary serv-
ices, which the men of the place were accustomed and obliged to pay to
their lords, were turned into rents, . . . so that the lords would not dare to
require from the abovenamed men anything more against their will . . . This
must contribute to the growth and improvement of the castle of Tintinnano,
which, if it had a large population, would be so very flourishing among the
castles of Italy . . .

In reality, despite these fine words, the peasants of Tintinnano, now Rocca
dOrcia, a couple of miles off the main pilgrim road from France to Rome
128 medieval europe

(whence perhaps also some of Guido Medicos more resonant phrases), were
threatening to abandon the village altogether if their lord did not make some
concessions to them. It is also very likely that the charter was given out in
return for money from the peasants, who would have been prepared to pay a
one-off sum to obtain the detailed rules for rent-paying and peasant rights
which make up the rest of the text: documents like this do often admit that,
even if not in this case. This mixture of struggle and pay-offs was replicated,
with different emphases in each case, throughout Europe in the development
of village franchises.17
What franchises show in every case, however, is a community which
managed to gain a level of economic stability, and greater local institutional
strength as well, by collective action. We have seen that medieval politics was
often collective; Carolingian and northern European assemblies show it, and
so do Italian city communes. This worked in villages as well, throughout
Europe.18 Even English villages, where franchises were rare, had collectively
established customs. Village communities, which before 1000 were as far as we
can see strong only in Spain and probably Denmark, across the central middle
ages gained strength everywhere in Europe; they became protagonists, and
their leaders gained institutional recognition, indeed calling themselves
consuls in parts of Italy and southern France, on the model of cities. These
were members of the richest local families in nearly every case; peasant lites
always gained most from political and economic autonomy from lords. But
such lites needed the backing of a wider community, and that community
gained too. Parishes and thus local religious activity were more and more
village-based as well; and villages more and more had a serious economic role
too, to run open fields in northern Europe, irrigation in the south, common
pasture everywhere.19 This sort of collective protagonism, seldom in this period
moving into outright revolt, is one reason why lords indeed did not exact as
much from their peasants as they might have. It shows that peasants were not
always victims in these social developments. It also gives some context to the
archaeology of village prosperity. Although it is never yet possible to be entirely
sure whether this prosperity (such as it was) preceded or succeeded the crystal-
lisation of village communities and the obtaining of franchises, it does show, as
the protagonism of communities also shows, that peasants could take some
advantage from the economic expansion of these centuries, and perhaps some-
times even keep it.
One steady trend, when seigneurial rights were added to rents, and even to
an extent when they were not, was for the exactions by lords from peasants to
be more often in money, as the eleventh century moved into the twelfth and
The long economic boom, 9501300 129

thirteenth. The reasons are simple: there was more silver around, so it was
actually possible to expect that peasants might have access to it; and lords
increasingly preferred money rent, as it was easier to use it to buy goods. When
taxation restarted, usually in the thirteenth century, as we shall see in the next
chapter, it was almost always in money too. The great mines of Goslar in Saxony
from the 960s, Meissen in Saxony from the 1160s, Friesach in Austria from the
1190s, Jihlava in Bohemia from the 1220s, Kutn Hora in Bohemia from the
1290s, and (the exception to this central European set) Iglesias in Sardinia
from the 1250s, each lasted a century or so. These, plus a host of smaller mines,
in central-northern Italy and again central Europe, provided enough silver to
be coined and recoined for all this period, although there were serious low
points around 1100 and then again later around and after 1400.20 We have a
substantial amount of evidence for the coins that resulted, for they survive, in
hoards and excavations, and are also constantly referred to in narratives and
documents. On archaeological sites, they are commonest from the early to
mid-thirteenth century onwards, but written evidence shows they had already
become by 1000 the point of reference for at least larger transactions throughout
most of Europe. When lords switched to rents in money rather than produce,
they had to have been confident that peasants could at least so to speak buy
the coins they needed for rent by selling goods in local markets.
It is often still thought that an active exchange economy needs coins. This is
not true; credit is enormously important in most exchange systems, then as
now, and debt-credit agreements can be complicated without any physical
money changing hands at all. The medieval economy worked on credit to a
very large extent, indeed. We can assume it did in markets when peasants were
buying or selling on too small a scale for coins to be useful (in twelfth-century
England, a whole sheep went for four pennies, the smallest standard coin,
before the price inflation at the end of the century); and certainly it did back at
home, when grain was needed in advance of harvests, or goods had to be got
together for a dowry, or when an extra field needed to be added to a peasant
tenure to feed a growing family, but could not be paid for at once.21 The docu-
ments which show these sorts of transaction, which were ever more common
in the most active local economies, show debts being totted up in coins, but
these were never necessarily needed to pay debts back. All the same, coins
steadily spread into all types of transaction, and by the thirteenth century their
availability in western and southern Europe, at least, seems to have been taken
for granted. Once peasants were forced into market exchange by the need to
pay rents in money, coins became steadily more normal in the countryside,
which in turn facilitated the next (and more important) change, the growing
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practice of buying artisanal products rather than making them oneself. This
was one essential backdrop to the other side of the economic transformations
of this period, the growth of towns.

* * *
Overall, the weight of urbanism in the central middle ages was not huge. In
Domesday-Book England, where our earliest relatively good data come from,
some 10 per cent of the population lived in towns (with, across Europe in 1050,
a regionally varying range from maybe 2 per cent in Scandinavia to maybe
15 per cent in Italy). It is likely that all these proportions doubled by 1300. But
we are still not talking of anything near to an urban dominance of the overall
economy, except probably inside the close-packed network of medium-sized
towns in Flanders and northern Italy, and in particular around the very largest
towns in Europe: Paris and Milan at maybe 200,000 inhabitants in 1300;
Constantinople (well down from its height a century earlier), Genoa, Venice
and Florence at maybe 100,000; London at less, maybe 80,000, but acting as the
undisputed centre of a coherent state.22 Only in Italy did towns rule the coun-
tryside politically, because independent Italian communes were all urban,
although it must be recognised that the Flemish towns were locally hegemonic
in practice too, under the ruling counts of Flanders, and spent much of the
fourteenth century (and to a lesser extent both before and after) in revolt
against their rulers. Outside these two networks, towns operated in an
economic and political landscape dominated by rural powers; they cannot be
seen separately from the aristocratic world that surrounded them and bought
their products. (The old phrase of the British economic historian Michael
Postan that towns were non-feudal islands in the feudal seas is wholly inac-
curate, then;23 indeed, urban leaders also held values identical to those of more
traditional aristocrats, such as the need to defend ones honour by violence, and
were often hard to distinguish from them.) It is not surprising, in fact, that after
a generation of excited work in the mid-twentieth century on the supposed
proto-capitalist potential of medieval urban economies, the best work of the
next generation focused on the agricultural sector, although more recently
good studies have been made again of both Flemish and English urbanism.
To see how urban growth actually worked on the ground, however, let us
look at examples. Here I will briefly describe three very different towns, Pisa,
Ghent and Stratford-upon-Avon, and then consider wider questions on the
basis of that.
Pisa, like almost all major Italian towns, was an old Roman city, with a
continuity of settlement and political activity from the Roman empire to the
The long economic boom, 9501300 131

present day. Around 1100, it had an archbishop and a viscount, plus the begin-
nings of a city commune. It lay in the marshy delta of the River Arno, and,
south of the city, the portus Pisanus was the best port on the western side of
Italy between Genoa and Naples; Pisa always looked to the sea, and after 950 or
so was increasingly active as a maritime centre. Archaeological evidence shows
that from then on as under the Roman empire, but rather less in between
Pisa was the funnel for imports of goods into Tuscany from the rest of the
Mediterranean, particularly high-quality decorated glazed pottery from
Tunisia and Sicily (for pottery always shows up best on archaeological sites). It
is not clear who brought them, whether in Pisan or Tunisian/Sicilian ships, but
it is at least certain that a Pisan fleet did exist by the eleventh century, for Pisans
had some form of commercial connection with the amirs of Denia in
al-Andalus, and they were also developing a tradition of violently sacking rich
Muslim-ruled Mediterranean cities (such as Palermo in 1064 and Palma de
Mallorca in 1115) and taking their treasure. Pisas remarkable late-eleventh-
century cathedral, still standing almost unchanged, was largely built with that
treasure, as inscriptions on its faade boast. Eleventh-century trade routes in
the Mediterranean were overwhelmingly those of the Muslim world; the Pisans
were, in effect, forcing their way into full participation in these networks by
violence, much as the Vikings had in the North Sea two centuries earlier. By the
early twelfth century, after their successful contribution to the First Crusade
(Archbishop Daiberto of Pisa became Latin patriarch of Jerusalem), the Pisans
could establish commercial treaties with Byzantium in 1111, Cairo in 1154,
Tunis in 1157; by then, together with the Genoese and Venetians, they were
major players in the growing networks of Mediterranean exchange. The urban
lites of Pisa were not all obviously merchants many were landowners of a
classic medieval type, and the merchants all had some land too but some had
a clear commercial interest, and there were by now Pisans abroad from
Constantinople to Sicily. We do not have the remarkable early notarial registers
for Pisa that we have for Genoa, its sister city and rival, from the 1150s onwards,
which show the complexity of the contracts which ship-owners made by now,
and the density of funding of sea commerce engaged in by traditional lite
families, stretching again, very visibly, all over the Mediterranean. But the more
prosaic and traditional land documents we do have for Pisa show, all the same,
that the citys richest figures were similarly active.24
On the basis of this, Pisa expanded rapidly, in the twelfth century in partic-
ular. By 1100, its market area was already stretching outside its old Roman
walls; in the 1150s, the city commune built a new wall circuit, which included
six times the land-area of the old city, both north and south of the Arno. By
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then, Pisa was full of the stone and brick tower houses of the aristocracy some
of them survive today as well as the one- and two-storeyed houses of more
ordinary citizens. In 1228, a collective oath of all the citys adult males shows us
that Pisa had around 25,000 inhabitants. Many of them were artisans, in well
over a hundred trades, in particular bakers, shoemakers, smiths and textile
workers, plus the ever-present mercatores, merchants of differing levels of
importance.25 This looks impressive at first sight; but the city had probably by
now passed its peak. Its pattern of trades was typical of any medieval town of
any size after 1100 or so, and by 1228 the city was in fact beginning to be left
behind by Genoa. Its prosperity was as a commercial centre, bringing goods
from one region to another, not as a manufacturing centre specialising in
goods that would be sold widely by others. And the people who needed to buy
goods via Pisa in particular were limited. The inland towns of Tuscany, Lucca,
Siena and the rising Florence, certainly did; but Pisa did not have the advantage
Genoa had, with its fast roads to Milan and the Alpine passes. Genoa a few
decades later would be four times the size of Pisa, and in 1284 in a great sea
battle off the mouth of the Arno, the Genoese destroyed the Pisan fleet; the city
never regained its former prominence.
We can set that history against that of an equally active north European
town, Ghent in Flanders, which is situated at the confluence of the rivers
Scheldt and Leie near the coast here, too, a marshy delta area in our period.
Ghent was hardly settled before the seventh century, when a monastery was
founded there. By the ninth century there was a river port beside the monas-
tery, but Vikings destroyed both in 879. They were replaced slightly later by a
new settlement on the other side of the Leie beneath the modern town centre,
fortified by a ditch; by the mid-tenth century this was set against a castle of the
count of Flanders, initially made of wood, but rebuilt in stone in the mid-
eleventh century. Ghent steadily expanded in the direction of the counts castle,
beside which the towns major markets were located, showing the importance
of the demand of the castle-dwellers for the early development of the town. By
the early twelfth century, a sizeable settlement of some eighty hectares, about
half the size of Pisas walled space in the 1150s, had developed here, from a
more or less standing start in 900 or so. By the late thirteenth century, indeed,
Ghent probably had over 60,000 inhabitants, far more than Pisa by then, and
more than any other town in Flanders, although Bruges and Ypres, each only
50km from Ghent, had over half that. As at Pisa, some twelfth-century lite
housing was already in stone, as was at least one market hall, and there were
tower houses here too in some cases. Some of these houses also had substantial
warehouses; they were commercial establishments. Ghents lites were rich and
The long economic boom, 9501300 133

autonomous, operating in a commune (communio) with aldermen, by 1128,

and doubtless the town already had a merchants guild such guilds are
attested, with elaborate statutes, for two nearby towns in the late eleventh
century, Saint-Omer and Valenciennes, even if not yet for Ghent itself. This
autonomy continued, under an oligarchy that by the thirteenth century was
called the Thirty-Nine, although successive counts of Flanders could and did
contest it. In the fourteenth-century wars with the count, the leaders of the
Flemish cities were very often from Ghent; Jacob van Artevelde in the 1340s
and his son Philip in the early 1380s were briefly in effect rulers of the whole of
Unlike in Pisa, these lites were not primarily landowners; although they
bought land as time went on, their wealth was urban-based in every period.
They were merchants, as in Pisa; but here the wider urban economy was quite
different, for the town was a cloth-producing centre above all. Flanders devel-
oped its own wool production, directed into its towns to be made into cloth, in
the eleventh century; by the 1110s at the latest, however, it was importing wool
from England, and English wool was henceforth the basic source for the
Flemish cloth industry until after the Black Death. In the thirteenth century,
around half of Ghents population were textile workers, a concentration only
matched in Ypres and Milan and, later, Florence, although two dozen towns in
Flanders and Italy (and also the Flemish countryside) had similar specialisa-
tions on a smaller scale. Ghent and its neighbours exported this cloth across
most of Europe: Ypres merchants are documented in Novgorod in the 1130s.
Flemish cloth, indeed, dominated even Florentine manufacturing until the
thirteenth century, which was up till then focused on dying and finishing
woven cloth from Ghent, Ypres and the others. Merchants from all over also
came to Flanders five cloth fairs, which had an annual sequence by 1200.
Ghent thus depended for its prosperity on a Europe-wide distribution; it also
depended for its food on an exchange network which stretched almost as wide,
as Flanders could not supply all those towns itself. This was an lite market;
Flemish cloth for export was too high-quality for mass consumption, which
was still highly localised and hardly commercialised as yet. But there were
enough lites across Europe to make its producers numerous and its owners
rich. Class conflict followed: the largest-scale popular revolts before the Black
Death, among the most effective of the whole middle ages, linked clothworkers
and peasants in Flanders in 12971304 and 132328. They defeated the king of
France himself in a pitched battle at Courtrai in 1302.27
Pisa and Ghent were very large towns which depended on an international
exchange network. Most towns were however much smaller, and served much
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more local markets. In England, where there has been the most systematic
work on this subject, there were between 500 and 600 boroughs (settlements
with an urban charter) in 1300, of which only 112 are recorded in Domesday
Book, implying that most were new foundations; the great majority of these
had fewer than a thousand inhabitants each.28 Such centres at best served a
25km-radius surrounding area, a days travel there and back. One well-studied
example is Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, which was a village in
Domesday Book, but was given a market charter by King Richard I for its
owner the bishop of Worcester in 1196, and was then laid out in uniform plots
by the bishop, for standard rents.29 Stratford survived and prospered, and
indeed the bishops plots are sometimes still visible in the layout of the modern
town (one is the modern Shakespeare Hotel). By the 1250s, it had some 1000-
plus inhabitants, so the town had grown fast by English standards; the families
were almost all from places inside the same 25km radius. The town had a
coherence by now, which was emphasised by the appearance in the 1260s of a
local religious fraternity to which even some poorer Stratfordians belonged,
plus incoming traders. The towns inhabitants were largely artisans, in leather,
cloth, metal, wood, and food preparation: that is to say in the standard trades
in any medieval town, without any particular specialisation. This is however
important. Stratford was well located. It lay between two well-defined economic
areas, the rich arable land of the Avon valley plus the rolling Felden plain to its
south, set against the Arden woodlands to its north with a more pastoral
economy; it was also on a Roman road which ran over the Avon bridge, west to
the salt-producing centre of Droitwich. It was thus a good centre for regional
exchange across south Warwickshire, and its market allowed people to come
from each of these directions to buy and sell goods. But its artisans point at
something else: the beginning of a small-town-based productive network with
a potentially peasant market, the 10,000 or so people in its immediate hinter-
land. For who else would go to Stratford? The local rich, bishops, earls or
gentry, would go (or send) to the nearest really big towns, Coventry or Bristol,
two of the five largest in England, and neither of them so very far away. The
appearance of artisans here and in very many other small towns, which in
this respect are the most significant markers of the process is thus a sign of
the next major shift in the exchange economy: the beginnings of urban produc-
tion for the mass of the population, and not only for lites, and, conversely, the
beginning of the habit by peasants to buy their cloth (cloth being the most
important of all these products) and not make it for themselves. Although, as I
said at the start of this chapter, we have as yet only the beginnings of an under-
standing of how far that commercialisation process had reached in the rural
The long economic boom, 9501300 135

economy as a whole, the success of a small town like Stratford does lie at those
Thus towns operated at two different economic and geographical levels.
One was the simple exchange between rural and urban. Town-dwellers for the
most part did not grow their own food; they made and sold things, and got
the coin to buy food from the countryside from that. Sometimes, when towns
were large and/or dense, that exchange went very far into the countryside;
Londons demand affected markets as far out as Dover, Oxford and even
Peterborough; and Sicily from 1200 or so onwards became a bread basket for
half the great central-northern Italian cities.31 But essentially this was a local
exchange process.
The other level was the long-distance trade which connected Flanders to
Italy, and both of them to far further afield. This became very elaborate. There
had long been two major maritime networks around the edge of Europe, the
Mediterranean and the North Sea. They had different ups and downs (in the
early middle ages, the low point for the North Sea was the sixth century, in
the Mediterranean the eighth32), but both were expanding in the scale and
density of shipping by the eleventh. There were by now important entrepts in
Constantinople, Alexandria (and Cairo further inland), Palermo, Almera and
Venice for the Mediterranean; London, Bruges, plus inland Rhine ports such as
Cologne for the North Sea. Venice, joined by Genoa and (more briefly) Pisa,
later developed whole commercial and colonial empires in the eastern
Mediterranean, in the wake of the Crusades. The routes by now expanded
outwards, too, notably across the Baltic, hopping from port to port in what is
now Germany and Poland the towns which would in the fourteenth century
league together as the Hanse and then going along the great Russian rivers
via Novgorod and Kiev to Constantinople again. And the rapid urbanisation of
Flanders and northern Italy encouraged a network of more direct land routes
too, even, remarkably, across the Alps. By the twelfth century, Italian and
Flemish merchants met roughly halfway, in Champagne, where a series of six
great annual fairs, set up entrepreneurially by the local counts, became in the
thirteenth century an additional entrept on a European scale.33
Products from both Europe and beyond were exchanged in the Champagne
fairs and elsewhere along these routes: silks from Byzantium and Syria; linen
and sugar from Egypt; pepper and other spices from across the Indian ocean;
the best woollen cloth from Flanders and Italy; arms from Milan; furs from
Rus. As exchange systems became ever more complex, long-distance credit
agreements, made in Champagne and elsewhere, developed into organised
banking, in which the Tuscan towns, Lucca and Florence at the forefront,
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became specialists. By the end of the thirteenth century, the greatest banks
became so large that they were themselves international-level middlemen (the
Bardi and Peruzzi banks of Florence ran much of Englands wool export to
Flanders) and by now lent not only to merchants but to kings, who needed
instant money for wars and were prepared to pay high interest in return. As in
2008, that ambition did not end well for many, for kings, when they defaulted,
did so on such a scale that whole banks collapsed: Edward I of England
destroyed the Riccardi bank of Lucca in this way when he confiscated their
assets in 1294 (they went under in the next decade); the Frescobaldi of Florence
fell when Edward II ran into trouble in 1311; and the Bardi and Peruzzi, by now
overextended, in part with loans to Edward III, fell in their turn in 134346.34
But by now it was possible for families to gain great wealth, and successful
career paths over several generations, and major social and political promi-
nence in their home towns (Giotto painted the Bardi and Peruzzi family chapels
in Santa Croce in Florence), simply out of the financial and commercial market,
that is to say mercantile capitalism something which had never been possible
in European history before, even under the Roman empire.
This pattern of development, especially when painted in romantic colours
as it often is, has seemed so compelling to historians that it sometimes looks
like the medieval economic development par excellence, the proof that, if
something had not gone wrong (perhaps the Black Death, perhaps the restric-
tive policies of medieval guilds, perhaps, although less likely, the Hundred
Years War, or the early fifteenth-century silver famine), medieval Europe
might have achieved the industrial capitalist breakthrough centuries earlier
than it did. In fact, however, European international exchange was not the
most important part of the economic boom at all. For a start, Europe was not
at the centre, but rather on the edge, of this exchange network; it stretched
eastwards from there through Egypt to the Indian Ocean, extending as far as
China, where, in the thirteenth century, the Yangzi valley was the most
economically complex region in the world. As far as Mediterranean trade was
concerned, its real powerhouse until at least the fourteenth century was Egypt,
focused on Cairo, which was (after Constantinoples post-1204 decline, for
which see Chapter 9) the Mediterraneans largest city, double the size of Paris
and Milan. Egypt also had specialist cloth-making factory towns like Tinnis
and Damietta; its production of linen, as also sugar, was industrial in scale.35
The banking sophistication of Italian cities in the thirteenth century was largely
borrowed from the merchant entrepreneurs of Cairo and Alexandria. Many of
these were Jewish, which helps us to know about them, for a huge cache of
medieval Jewish documents, the geniza, survives from Cairo, and these tell us
The long economic boom, 9501300 137

a substantial amount about the complex commercial and financial practices of

merchants in the Islamic world from the eleventh century to the thirteenth. (In
Europe, by contrast, Jews were restricted to rather smaller-scale and more
socially unpopular moneylending than the Italian bankers managed.)36 Genoa
and Venice, in particular, largely depended on Egypt for their success as
middlemen, and, although the Flemish and inland Italian cloth towns did not,
Egypt outmatched them for a long time.
Secondly, the international commercial system, for all its glamour, was less
significant in overall economic terms than the first level of the urban economy,
the small-scale exchange of primary products and low-quality cloth and iron-
work between towns and the countryside. The international system was above
all a luxury system, focused on expensive items which would be sold to kings,
aristocrats, senior clergy, urban patricians, and their clientles. Banking went
further than that, for it financed wars, and thus the distinctly less luxurious
aspects of military logistics, but the arena remained that of high politics. Only
the need for consistent food and fuel supplies in every great town, for lites and
workers alike, plus that for raw materials such as wool, linked this international
network to the peasant majority. (Peasant sales did not always dominate this
supply, too: in much of Italy, lords moved away from money rents in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries, for they realised what profits could be made from
their own sales of grain and wine to towns.)37 It was small towns and small-
scale exchange that, very slowly and haltingly, introduced lower-cost manufac-
tured products to a mass market, which would have been and, eventually,
was a far more secure basis for the sort of industrialisation which took place
500 years later. We shall look again at the way the countryside became more
commercialised at the end of the middle ages, in Chapter 11; even then, no part
of Europe was on any sort of path to industrial transformation. But that path,
when it began in the end, would be waymarked with low-value products for
rural buyers, not the argosies full of silk and spices which docked at Venice.
One commercial development of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries which
was genuinely important, however, and which indeed linked the rural and
urban parts of this chapter in lasting ways, was the tendency towards agricul-
tural specialisms. As we saw earlier, one way peasants can cope with the pres-
sure on land is to grow the crops which flourish best on that sort of land and to
specialise in them, selling them outwards in return for crops which grow better
on land elsewhere. They will probably not do this completely rural commu-
nities living entirely on cash cropping, and thus buying, rather than producing,
most of their food, were rare before the twentieth century. But we can track
such specialisations, first at the local level and then more widely. In Italy, for
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example, already by the eleventh century we find that hillsides were often much
more clearly specialising in vineyards than in previous centuries, and that the
plains grew more grain; clearly, that sort of difference assumed exchange
between the two. In England, the same happened between pastoral and agri-
cultural areas, as there were each side of Stratford.
Slowly, however, entire regions began to specialise for export too. Grain
could be grown almost everywhere, but rich areas which were close to rivers
and the sea could export to grain-poor regions, as Sicily, as we have seen, did
to the hyper-urbanised parts of north-central Italy; Polish grain would have a
similar role by the end of the middle ages for much of northern Europe. Wine-
producers in France started off by specialising at the northern margin of vine
cultivation, regions such as the Paris basin and Champagne, which were closest
to those where wine could not be grown, but whose lites might want to drink
it. But actually the vineyards on that margin were less productive and produced
poorer wine than those further south (the famous and expensive bubbly
Champagne did not develop until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries);
once transport infrastructures improved, large-scale production for export
switched to Bordeaux and Burgundy, where the most lasting specialised viti-
culture developed. Wool production became intensive and export-led in
England by the twelfth century; in central Spain and southern Italy, similar
developments came later, in the thirteenth and fourteenth. Timber became a
specialised production too, in the great woodlands that survived clearance and
were close enough to convenient water courses, like the Black Forest beside the
Rhine in Germany and the limitless coastal forests of southern Norway. Even
dried fish became such a commodity; northern Norways very existence as a
settled area largely depended on being able to sell stockfish via Bergen to
England and further south still.38 These interlinkages, once established,
survived. A product of the need to rationalise agriculture in a period of rising
population and urban demand, they continued to provide exchange outlets
even when the population dropped rapidly, in town and countryside, in the late
fourteenth century. Indeed, those population drops fuelled a further move to
pasture, that is to say to wool production, in many places in Europe, which
would continue to be the basis for cheap woollen cloth in future centuries.
All the changes described in this chapter came on the back of a rising popu-
lation. As I have implied several times, this would come to an abrupt halt when
the Black Death hit Europe in and after 134752. What happened then we will
look at in Chapter 11. But it is not quite the case that Europe was expanding its
economy in all respects, right up to the eve of the great plague. Peasant popula-
tions can only do so much to cope with long-term population rises, without
The long economic boom, 9501300 139

radical new technologies and cultivation methods. Those available to

thirteenth-century peasants reached full capacity by the end of the century,
and, from then on, as population grew, famines begin to be attested more and
more in our sources. Previously, in years of bad harvests, rural communities
could just about survive, but now, at the limits of demographic growth, this
might not happen any longer. In 131517, often extending later, hard winters
and wet summers exhausted the resources of the whole of northern Europe,
and even the interconnected relationships we have seen developing were not
enough to avert famine, after the first year at least. Grain and wine yields
dropped dramatically, sheep epidemics reduced the wool supply to Flanders,
even salt production suffered.39 The death toll, although hard to calculate
exactly, was great; and famines on a smaller scale studded the next decades too,
including in Italy by now. It was here that demographic expansion came to a
halt, and peasant populations had to face how to limit births more radically
than they had managed before. This can be seen in very catastrophist terms,
and indeed used to be, when the whole of the late middle ages was seen as a
period of depression and crisis. Interpretations are more nuanced now, and the
post-Black Death period can be seen as one of increasingly capillary commer-
cialisation. This interpretation is by now often extended to the period 130050
as well, with a steadily rising curve of economic integration proposed.40 But it
would be hard not to say that the decades just before 1350 were tough for
Europes peasants, at least in regions where there was little room by now to
expand, Italy, northern France, the Low Countries, much of England. For
them, however brutal it is to say it, the plague brought some relief. But we shall
look at this in greater detail later.

* * *
What, finally, did the long boom bring to Europes social and political frame-
works which was not available before? A sense of movement, for sure. It had
never been impossible to get about in Europe; but with Flemings in England,
Italians in Flanders, the French in Italy, for trading purposes, but also increas-
ingly, on the back of trade routes, for education or political career paths, links
were created which could be complex even if they were never fast, for it was
no quicker to get from England to Italy in 1300 and indeed in 1500 than it had
been in 800. Social mobility was also on the rise; urban expansion achieved this
on its own, for life in towns was very unlike that in villages, and a small
percentage of the lucky could prosper in this new world even if it was mostly
rural lites who made it in the urban environment, and not the poorest of
all. Inside villages, too, economic opportunities meant that richer peasants
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prospered more than their poorer neighbours, whom they sometimes, by now,
employed as part-time wage labourers: social mobility thus also increased
social differentiation. Expertise was more accessible; with the new craft foci
developing in Europes towns, it was easier than it had been before to get state-
of-the-art knowledge if one had enough money. The multilingual cathedral
construction sites of Europe, together with the steady spread of expertise in the
new Gothic building techniques from northern France to England, Germany,
southern Spain, Italy, Bohemia, were a sign of this everywhere in the thirteenth
century.41 For rulers, the wider availability of money, and the general (if harder
to pin down) extension of prosperity at all levels, gave opportunities for taxa-
tion, which was already important for John in England and Philip II in France
in the 1200s, but which their late-thirteenth-century successors, Edward I
and Philip IV, took even fuller advantage of, as we shall see in the next chapter.
That in itself allowed them to create more ambitious state structures, which
had their own effects on social mobility (new strata of officials, in particular,
with their own training and expertise) and social constraints. It also allowed
them to fight bigger wars, which introduced an element of adventurism into
fourteenth-century European politics that had not been seen to such an extent
before; the greater social and political flexibility created by the long boom was
not all positive, that is to say. Overall, however, even if one is not romantic
about the centuries of expansion, one can at least see that they had major effects
on European practices, at every social level. When set against the effects of the
localisation of politics described in the last chapter, they underpinned most of
the developments analysed in the rest of this book.
chapter eight

The ambiguities of political

reconstruction, 11501300

When in 1093 King William II of England appointed a new archbishop of

Canterbury, Anselm of Bec, he invested him as archbishop with the staff of
office, as kings had traditionally done. Anselm soon fell out with William and
left the country, arriving in Rome in 1098. Here, however, he discovered that,
as we saw earlier, popes had been condemning lay investiture since 1078; so,
when he returned to England after Williams death in 1100, he duly informed
the new king Henry I that such rituals were invalid. This caused renewed
trouble, and peace was made between king and archbishop only in 1107.
Anselm was not much given to compromise hence the trouble but he was
no provincial: he was Italian, he had been abbot of a major Norman monastery,
and he was an innovative and respected theologian. That someone as connected
as Anselm could have been unaware of one of the major elements of the conflict
between popes and emperor tells us something about the lack of density in
political communication in the years around 1100.1
Contrast the Fourth Lateran Council, held in Rome a century later, in
November 1215. This, the largest of medieval church councils, was called by
Pope Innocent III in April 1213, and was attended by a huge number of bishops
and abbots, over twelve hundred senior clerics from all Europe and even the
east. The canons (decrees) of the council covered every angle of church prac-
tice as it had by then developed, including elections, the running of church
courts, excommunication, judicial ordeal (the council prohibited it), heresy,
attitudes to Jews, crusading, and not least the development of pastoral
care and preaching. Subsequently, they were made available across the whole
of Latin Europe, systematically, through the dissemination of the text of
the council, and the expectation (partly realised) that bishops would instruct
their own parish clergy about it. If these decrees did not result in instant
reform in most places, as historians point out, that is hardly surprising,
although in the longer term many of them did have an effect. Nor were they

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wholly new, although they were newly ambitious in their aim for uniformity.
But more important is that they became a new basis for current practice every-
where.2 This difference marks more than one change. First, it shows how much
more powerful popes were in 1215 than they had been in 1100, as is simply
shown by Innocents capacity to get everyone to come to Rome, and to take
home the decrees of a council which were above all papal in inspiration. But it
also shows how much communications had developed. Innocent could by now
get all these people together, using networks of messengers riding along all the
roads of Europe and not all roads were good, as for example in Germany or
Poland, not to speak of having to travel across the sea to Ireland, Scotland,
England or Scandinavia, all of which sent prelates. People were indeed ready to
come, and this too shows that the density of political contact had increased
substantially. Power, communications and the use of texts were thus all
changing in this period, and would continue to do so across the rest of the
thirteenth century. What some of the implications of this are will be the theme
of this chapter.
The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw political systems become larger-
scale and/or more powerful almost everywhere in Latin Europe, after the
contraction in scale which we looked at for the eleventh century in Chapter 6.
Not in Poland or Sweden, as we also saw earlier; after the 1240s, famously
not in Germany, as we shall see; but more or less everywhere else. We shall
begin by rapidly running through how this worked in, in turn, France,
England, Castile, Hungary, Italy, the western church, and finally Germany,
to get a sense of the different but often convergent ways it happened. But the
core arguments of the chapter will focus on the implications this process had
for communication and control. A greater use of writing, the growth of
concepts of accountability, the growing complexity of law, and a slow increase
in ideas of problem-solving were all important developments in this period,
and all had an effect on how political practices worked. These developments
link as well to the concurrent development of a much more complex environ-
ment of intellectual enquiry, and to new forms of local religious practice,
which were challenging to the growing centralisation of ecclesiastical legiti-
macy. How such a complicated mix worked, and could be controlled, was at the
centre of the problems of power in this period; we shall look at each of these
aspects in turn.
France once again provides a textbook example, this time of political unifi-
cation. We saw in Chapter 1 how Louis VII (113780) could use his residual
powers as judge and lord, turning back even Henry II of England at Toulouse
in 1159, but this did not change the fact that the territory under his direct
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 143

control hardly extended beyond the Paris basin, and that the lands of the
English king covered nearly half the area of the kingdom of France. His son
Philip II Augustus (11801223) moved on from there, however, to consider-
able effect. As we have also seen, the Paris basin was rich, and Philip could take
considerable resources from it, so he was strategically in a stronger position
than might appear. Henry IIs son John made a set of tactical missteps in
120102 over an apparently small issue: he married Isabella of Angoulme, the
fiance of one of his French counts, another Hugh of Lusignan, and then
refused to come to Paris when Hugh appealed to Philip as Johns own lord for
his French lands. In response, however, Philip took the remarkable step of
declaring Johns lands forfeit and invading them. John lost the war of 120204
and most of his French lands; he only kept his southern Aquitainian (Gascon)
territories around Bordeaux, which remained under English control for
another 250 years. Philip nearly doubled his resources and quadrupled the area
he ruled directly, and from that basis royal power moved ever further afield.
The Albigensian Crusade of 120829 (discussed later in this chapter), although
initially undertaken by armies not under his control, increasingly came under
the generalship of his son Louis VIII, and eventually resulted in the extension
of effective royal power as far as the Mediterranean coast.
This political network held together, including in the uncertain years of the
minority of Philips grandson Louis IX (122670) in the 1220s and 1230s, and
in the equally uncertain years when Louis IX went on crusade, to Egypt and
Tunisia (in each case with total lack of success). This was largely because in
most of the steadily extending lands of the royal domain the kings did not hand
back local power to hereditary counts or dukes, but instead sent lesser-ranking
and temporary officials, called seneschals or baillis, who were paid salaries by
the 1220s, to run each territory for the king. In the reign of Philip IV (1285
1314), royal authority was solid in most of the kingdom, with by now rather
fewer great lordships left, above all Flanders, Burgundy, Brittany, and of course
English Gascony large, autonomous and for the most part rich, it is true, but
next door to royal lands which were ever more tightly governed. The network
of officials Philip had during his reign is well documented, and was dense and
loyal we can follow the careers of some of them, as we shall see. Philip had the
clout to pull off some remarkable coups, including the coordinated destruction
of the military order of the Templars, and the seizure of its lands, through show
trials in 130714; as well as the sending of a small force into Italy to arrest Pope
Boniface VIII in Anagni, east of Rome, in 1303, after the pope had denounced
him and claimed authority over him. By now the king of France was the
strongest power in Europe, only a century after the fall of John.3
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France was unusual in moving so fast from fragmentation to autocracy;

most other polities had rather more to work with. But they show parallel devel-
opments all the same. We saw in Chapter 6 that England was almost alone in
western Europe in avoiding the localisation of political power in the eleventh
century. The cohesion of the kingdom remained second to none in the next
centuries too. When John (11991216), an able administrator but a terrible
politician in almost all fields, failed to reconquer his French lands, this did not
result in the weakening of central power, but, instead, in the uprising of half of
his aristocracy in 1215 and the imposition of a comprehensive charter of liber-
ties, Magna Carta: this laid out royal obligations to his people (above all his
aristocracy) in the framework of a more just, but still complex, government.
Magna Carta did not hold in 1215 (it was, among other things, condemned at
the Lateran Council), but its reissues during the minority of Johns son Henry
III (121672) did. The point about England is that leading aristocrats, far from
seeking to establish autonomous local powers, felt that the government of the
country was as much their right and responsibility as the kings. This sense of a
collective oligarchy went back to the unification of England in the tenth
century, and had survived both the total change in personnel after the Norman
Conquest and the periods of untrammelled power of forceful twelfth-century
kings like Henry I and Henry II who had, indeed, reinforced the trend against
autonomous powers by ensuring that local authority was largely in the hands
of temporary royal officials, here sheriffs and travelling judges (justices in
eyre), much as in France later.
English government continued to develop in sophistication in the thir-
teenth century, but the transactional power of the aristocracy increased too.
This was in particular because renewed tax-collecting by kings came to be seen
as dependent on the assent of royal assemblies of barons and knights (and, by
the end of the century, representatives of towns), which by the 1230s were
called parliaments. Under Henry III, this culminated at the Oxford parliament
of 1258 in the attempted takeover of royal authority itself by leading barons, led
by the earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, who sought to bypass the royal
control of government and to set up local commissioners to investigate admin-
istrative abuses at all levels. They failed (civil war ensued, and the barons were
defeated in 1265), but the momentum of governmental rethinking continued.
Edward I (12721307) incorporated it into his own political practice, with a
run of far-reaching statutes in the 1270s and 1280s which lay, together with
Magna Carta, at the back of English common law as it subsequently developed.
Edward was also a conqueror, putting Wales permanently under English rule
and English governmental structures in the 1280s, and in the later 1290s
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 145

absorbing Scotland temporarily into his kingdom too. (Ireland was already
partially under English control, although society was very different indeed
there: see Chapter 5.) War however was expensive, and taxation essential. In
1297, with war in France as well and taxation rising, the baronial leadership of
parliament forced Edward to agree to measures to restrict arbitrary tax
demands. If aristocratic collectivities could defy even Edward I, they could
certainly do so with weaker kings, and did so from here on. The dialogue
between kings and parliamentary assemblies, not least over tax, marked the
political particularity of England ever after, as we will see in later chapters.4
Castile had a different starting point. None of the tiny kingdoms of northern
Spain in the early eleventh century had a very developed infrastructure, even
the largest of them, Len, which became the kingdom of LenCastile when
Ferdinand I (103565), ruler of the newly established kingdom of Castile, took
over his larger neighbour in 103738. This was however the generation in
which al-Andalus broke up into successor kingdoms, the Taifas; by Ferdinands
death he and his Christian neighbours were taking substantial protection
money from them, and became rich. In 1085, as we saw in Chapter 3, his son
Alfonso VI (10651109) conquered one of the main Taifa kingdoms, Toledo,
the old Visigothic capital and the key to central Spain; he and some of his
successors took the title of emperor. So began, according to an older historiog-
raphy, the reconquista of Muslim Spain. The reality was far from that, for the
Muslims regrouped after 1086 under a new Moroccan dynasty, the Almoravids;
inconclusive wars with them and equally inconclusive wars between and inside
the Christian kingdoms marked the next century and more. The fact was that
few people in Christian Spain saw Muslim conquest as their main aim, even if
a succession of popes, and also French volunteers, introduced crusading
imagery into at least some ChristianMuslim wars in the peninsula. More
important to Alfonso VIs successors was the prevention of the break-up of
Castile itself. Attempts to unite with Aragn failed, and Portugal spun off
between 1109 and 1140 to become a separate kingdom, its identity legitimated
by the conquest of Lisbon in 1147 with the help of passing northern knights
on their way to the Second Crusade. Len temporarily became a
separate kingdom again in 1157 too; if we add tiny Navarre, there were by
now five kings in Christian Spain. But Castile never disintegrated into the
counties and castellanies of France; the permanent war on frontiers, both
Christian and Muslim, helped the kingdom to stay solid, and the aristocracy
remained focused on the Castilian court, ready to receive rewards in the form
of land and rights of local government in a very Carolingian way (they were
sometimes even called the same, honores). When these honores or tenencias
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began, as elsewhere, to be undermined by castle-based private lordships, plus

the powerful towns of the frontier region, the kingdom skipped two centuries
of trans-Pyrenean history: its kings henceforth developed local government
and justice based, as in France and England, on more temporary officials, here
often called merinos.5
It was this system that was extended to the south when Alfonso VIII of
Castile did make a breakthrough against the Muslims, at the battle of Las Navas
de Tolosa in 1212, and then when Ferdinand III (121752) occupied nearly the
whole of al-Andalus in the next generation only the amirs of Granada
remained independent. The kings of Castile thereafter dominated thirteenth-
century Spain. The huge patronage available after these conquests, backed up
by more substantial taxation from the start of the thirteenth century, kept the
kings at the centre of attention of every ambitious local power in Spain for over
a century. Even the flawed politics of the intellectual and lawgiver Alfonso X
(125284) did not shift that; what Alfonso tried to do, among other things, was
to undermine the local laws which underlay private lordships, and the
successful resistance of his aristocrats in the 1270s and later marked the
(temporary) failure of an aggressive, not a defensive, kingship.6
Hungary was another kingdom whose history was converging with those of
its neighbours. It had settled down considerably after its origins as a raiding
nomadic power in the tenth century. Stephen I (9971038) had adopted
Christianity, and it was also he who began to borrow infrastucture from the
Frankish world not only bishoprics, but counties to turn his dynastic
hegemony over an ex-nomad ruling class into something more organised. Still
more than in England, the king managed to establish himself as the over-
whelmingly dominant landowner, which made his patronage crucial for all
local powers. There was still the risk that counts would appropriate that land
(and they did), but the king kept the strategic edge, despite frequent wars of
succession. Twelfth-century kings fought aggressive external wars, in Croatia
and Russia, and that momentum, plus the wealth from silver mines, allowed
Bla III (117296) to reorganise government, borrowing from German and
probably Byzantine examples; a chance surviving document shows him with
very considerable wealth by twelfth-century standards, probably greater than
that of the kings of England or France, from land, silver, and tolls on exchange.
It is true that Andrew II (120535) chose a different political path, ceding
substantial lands to favoured aristocrats; a failed crusade and revolts against his
landed policies forced him to agree the Golden Bull of 1222, which protected
(as in England, but still more so), the rights of different strata of the aristocracy
from the king. His son Bla IV (123570) tried to reverse this, but the Mongol
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 147

invasion of 124142, which nearly destroyed the kingdom until the attackers
withdrew, showed all Hungarians that defence in depth was crucial, and the
resultant new system of castles was above all aristocrat-controlled. All the
same, residual royal power remained strong, and, as we shall see in Chapter 11,
could be turned around again after 1300. The Hungarian state was less organ-
ised internally than England or even Castile, even if often rich; but the
increasing explicitness of the balance between royal power and collective
action by aristocrats links the last three kingdoms we have looked at.7
Italy also showed the sharpening of political power. It did so on the largest
scale in the south, where Roger II of Sicily (110554) unified all the Norman
principalities in wars between 1127 and 1144, and was recognised as king by
Pope Anacletus II in 1130. The Norman kingdom was tightly governed from
then on for the most part, with a rich capital at Palermo and an elaborate
GreekArabLatin administration, linked to the provinces by royal-appointed
justiciars. This structure survived conquest by the German emperor Henry VI
in 1194 and the long minority of his infant son Frederick II (11971250). The
adult Frederick would indeed be among the most centralising of rulers in his
Sicilian and south Italian kingdom; his Roman-influenced legislation, his rela-
tively heavy taxation and his careful undermining of the private lordships of
his aristocrats all mark it, and, unlike some of the more ambitious thirteenth-
century kings elsewhere, he did so with very little resistance. This continued
even when the kingdom was conquered again, this time by Louis IXs brother
Charles of Anjou, in 1266.8
The situation in northern and central Italy was very different, but there were
parallels here too. Here the fifty-plus city communes gained coherence in their
governing structures from the early twelfth century onwards, under the rule in
nearly every case of consuls, as we saw in Chapter 6; this was just in time to
confront the attempt by the German emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152
90), the most successful emperor of the Staufen family, to re-establish his power
in the north, between 1158 and 1177. Fredericks claims to imperial authority
were based by now on Roman law, and they were not at all implausible, as city
leaders knew; but they were tougher in practice than the communes could
tolerate, and, one by one, the cities revolted and grouped themselves against
him, and he was decisively defeated at Legnano in 1176. The Italian cities had to
face several attempts to take them over across the next centuries (not least by
Frederick II after 1235), but fought them all off, up to 1500. Communal govern-
ment, then, meant the opposite of the steadily extending powers of a king of
France or Castile or Sicily. Furthermore, it was not even stable; rule by consular
collectives did not manage to overcome the tendency for each citys substantial
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military lite to divide into factions and fight internally. The next centuries
show the cities developing a continuous series of new institutional measures to
overcome this: first, from 1190 or so, salaried annual podest, who were from
outside the city so neutral between rivals, supposedly; then, after 1250 or so,
capitani del popolo, who represented the cities lesser lites, less prone to faction-
alising than the magnates, supposedly; then, increasingly after 1300 (all these
dates are very variable), signori, autocrats who soon became hereditary. This
might not seem very impressive as Europes main alternative to monarchical
rule, and some still hankered after that (one example was Dante Alighieri, as we
shall see in Chapter 12). But nonetheless, throughout all these changes, city
governments steadily gained in coherence, with ever-more-developed judicial
and fiscal systems (some became more elaborate than those anywhere else in
Latin Europe), and ever-clearer structures of control over their territories. Even
the fragmented pattern of north Italian urban power, then, matched most of the
developments of the most successful kingdoms of the thirteenth century.9
The popes were also based in Italy, but they had powers extending over all
the clergy of Latin Europe, taking advantage of the clerical autonomy from lay
authority which was increasingly recognised by the early twelfth century. We
saw in Chapter 6 that early-twelfth-century popes did not by any means have
an unchallenged hegemony over church affairs. Each kingdom had potentially
different practices, and its bishops would not necessarily appreciate or even
recognise papal direction; local charismatic leaders like Bernard of Clairvaux
could well have more force than distant Rome. What changed this was legal
procedure. Early medieval legal systems were complex, but it was rare for
appeals, whether lay or clerical, to go beyond the judicial tribunals of single
kingdoms. In the twelfth century, however, it became more and more normal
for clerics throughout Europe to petition the pope to resolve their disputes
and the laity too, in areas, such as marriage disputes, which the church was by
now making part of canon law. This appeals system developed rapidly under
Innocent II (113043), and still more so later in the century. It was not a full
centralisation process, for most church government and dispute-settlement
remained the task of bishops, and was dealt with inside dioceses. Dioceses,
often still divergently organised into the thirteenth century and beyond, thus
represented a cellular ecclesiastical structure, which closely paralleled the
patterns of secular power. But canon law slowly became more standardised
across Europe, and the possibility of appeal linked diocesan politics more and
more to that of Rome. There was a dialectic here: the cases soon overwhelmed
the papal Curia, and already under Innocent II it became normal to delegate
justice back down again to local bishops and abbots; but their decisions could
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 149

be and were appealed back to the Curia again, often over and over. This
legal system made large amounts of money for the papal administration (the
Curia was very expensive in bribes), and a substantial bureaucracy could be
paid on the back of it, which was then available for more focused efforts to deal
with local issues. The capillary network of papal intervention in local affairs
thus became steadily stronger, right up to the late fourteenth century. In stra-
tegic terms, the papacy in the later twelfth century was not yet well situated, for
trouble with Frederick Barbarossa and with the city of Rome itself, which had
revolted against the pope in 1143 and established a city commune independent
of him, meant that the popes were usually travelling. But in 1188 Clement III
made peace with the city and returned, and fifty years of popes from Romes
own lites followed, who could use the international judicial network of their
predecessors ever more stably and forcefully, as the impact of the Fourth
Lateran Council showed.10
Innocent III (11981216) was the most charismatic of these Roman popes.
He certainly equalled the kings of Europe in his capacity for targeted political
action: against John of England for his support of the wrong archbishop of
Canterbury; against Philip II of France for his marriage problems; against each
of two rival kings of Germany in turn. Innocent and his thirteenth-century
successors, up to Boniface VIII (12941303), were major players in Europe,
with intermittent claims to authority over every secular power. Appeals to
Rome, still the basis of this power, were ever more regularised and bureaucra-
tised; the right of popes to choose bishops throughout Europe, and thus to have
more (if still incomplete) control over dioceses, was becoming well developed
too. We have seen that claims that were too uncompromising brought Boniface
himself down, but his rhetoric was matched by several of his predecessors, and
indeed his successors. Intercutting with the growing power of kings, that is to
say, and often in competition with them, was Europes first major international
power, with an infrastructure by now as coherent as that of any kingdom, and,
importantly, an authority which was for the most part not lessened because it
was not backed up by battalions: communications, legal precedent, bureau-
cratic machinery, could do it without arms. We shall come back to this.11
So why, then, did this move to more clearly characterised and more central-
ised power not happen in Germany? For it is certainly the case that the revived
power of Frederick Barbarossa, who could intervene throughout Germany,
including in 1180 bringing down his greatest aristocrat, Henry the Lion,
duke of both Bavaria and Saxony, did not outlast the early death of Barbarossas
son Henry VI in 1197. Frederick II was a child in Sicily, and succession was
disputed between Henry VIs brother Philip and Henry the Lions son Otto IV.
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Innocent III in the end, in 1211, set Frederick, already king of Sicily, up against
the survivor, Otto, and Frederick did indeed succeed in establishing his rule in
the 1210s, but the cohesion of the kingdom had gone. After that, Frederick was
seldom in Germany, and a series of formal privileges to the German princes in
1213 (under Otto), 1220 and 1231 gave them the same sorts of powers that the
Golden Bull did in Hungary, with the difference that the king-emperor was
mostly not physically present. When Frederick fell out definitively with the
pope of the period, Innocent IV, in 1245, civil war followed, and after the death
of Frederick in 1250 and his son Conrad IV in 1254, there was a power vacuum
in Germany, with no widely accepted ruler until 1273. The king-emperors of
the end of the century and the centuries following, from new families, the
Habsburgs of (eventually) Austria, the Luxemburgs of (eventually) Bohemia,
the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, had no pretensions to direct rule over the German
lands as a whole, and nor did any successor before 1866.12
All the same, to ask why Germany failed to develop as an effective polity is
to ask the wrong question.13 It is not a question we ask when we look at northern
Italy, where a parallel process had already taken place. The fact is that the
sharpening of political power indeed occurred, but at a different level from that
of the kingdom: in the duchies, counties, smaller lordships, bishoprics, and
autonomous cities (as in Italy, there were many of these) stretching across the
wide lands from the Baltic Sea to the Alps, and from Antwerp to Prague and
Vienna, on the basis of the increasingly coherent localised power structures
which we saw developing in Chapter 6. This was already the case in Barbarossas
time; he established his own direct rule in his upper Rhine power-base above
all, with law-giving in land-peaces (the image was borrowed from the Peace of
God) and a tight network of dependent ministeriales, but intervened in the
German principalities above all from the outside some of them had been far
from the king, in Peter Moraws phrase, for two centuries before 1273, if not
more, for no king-emperor had ever ruled all Germany in equal depth.14 When
Barbarossa brought down Henry the Lion, for example, he nonetheless recog-
nised Henrys family land as still his, and this was enough to be the basis of a
lasting principality in the north around Braunschweig (Brunswick) and
Lneburg which, although divided between heirs at different times, still
remained in the hands of Henrys descendant George of Hanover when he
became George I of Great Britain in 1714. Later, after Frederick IIs death, the
Rhineland base of the Staufen king-emperors fragmented, often into remark-
ably small units in fact, but many other principalities carried on. Local rulers,
whether in old territories like the duchy of Bavaria or the march of Meissen,
or in newer ones based on family property like the Zhringen lands or
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 151

Braunschweig, or on ex-royal property and church advocacy as with many

small ministerialis-based lordships, established powers of justice, control over
local churches and monasteries, fiscal powers, their own land-peaces, just as
kings did. They varied in their coherence, from the tightly run march of
Meissen to the baggy and feud-focused duchy of Austria made emblematic by
Otto Brunner, but it was here that power was crystallising, everywhere.15 What
marked Germanys particularity was less the fact that the king-emperor was
weak than that, in this network of local polities, he remained recognised at
all for he was; he was always a significant point of reference in every period,
respected as a distant lord by all and sometimes appealed to for neutral justice.
Indeed, as we shall see later, the sense that Germans had of being part of a
single cultural and, in a loose sense, political community was in some ways
stronger in the late middle ages than it had been in 1200.

* * *
This set of sketches of political narratives shows some common themes. One
is that war and justice, the core elements of medieval governance up to this
period, had been added to by now, in particular by a greater attention to
fiscal rights. Kings had their own lands, and, for most of the middle ages,
most kings based themselves largely on the resources from them, but taxation
became slowly more important. It developed in England first, with thelred
IIs Danegeld around 1000, but in the later twelfth century it was beginning
to appear in polities of all kinds, from Catalonia, through Philip IIs French
royal heartland, to the Italian cities fighting Frederick Barbarossa.16 As war
became more expensive in the thirteenth century for it was based increas-
ingly on a stratum of professional soldiers who needed to be paid, more than
on the levies and personal followings of the past taxation steadily increased
in importance, in order to fund it. The kings of Sicily depended on it most fully;
Frederick II probably, and Charles of Anjou certainly, were the richest kings in
Europe.17 In England, although taxation dropped back in the twelfth century, it
was revived on different bases in the thirteenth, precisely to help pay for war.
Crusades by now needed taxes, as Louis IX found, and from 1294 onwards the
taxation of the French clergy to help finance a war with England was one of the
underpinnings of the trouble between Philip IV and Boniface VIII.18 This
taxation was by no means as heavy as it had been under the Roman empire, and
still was in Byzantium and the Islamic states: it was, and remained, inconsist-
ently collected, including in Sicily, where, although the kingdom was fiscally
precocious, the expertise of the recent Islamic past had already been lost we
will return to the point in the next chapter. It was also not until the Hundred
152 medieval europe

Years War that taxation became a fundamental feature of English or French

budgets; we will therefore look at the issue in more detail for the kingdoms of
the post-1350 period in Chapter 11. But for western rulers, even outside Sicily,
it was already adding to the flexibility of their resources before 1300; and, not
least, both taxation and land-based revenues increasingly also allowed the
funding of paid officials in large numbers, who could, as under the Roman
empire, substantially increase the effectiveness of strong states, in local justice
and administration above all.
This is indeed the second common theme we have seen: that nearly every
polity came to rely, even for local government, on career officials, rather than
on the high-status regional representatives, dukes and counts and hereditary
castellans, of the past. Not all of these were salaried as yet (France, England and
Italy were the pathbreakers here), but they were moved around, thus inhibiting
hereditary rights, and they were anyway generally of less high status perhaps
petty aristocrats, perhaps townsmen, in Germany even technically unfree
which further inhibited their ability to establish autonomous power, as indeed
rulers intended. This official stratum tended to be corrupt, as their successors
have mostly been since as well (people wanted to build up the personal wealth
that would match the power they were routinely wielding for others), but it also
tended to be loyal, for its members had little chance of exercising power except
as royal representatives; the better the job they did, the more power they might
keep. And, more and more as the twelfth century moved into the thirteenth,
they tended to be trained, sometimes in theology in the case of clerics, some-
times in the notarial tradition in the case of the laity, regularly in law in the case
of both. Non-lite lay advisers and officials were not an invention of this period;
as we saw in Chapter 4, Einhard had been one for Charlemagne, an educated
and intelligent man from nowhere much in central Germany who rose socially
because of that education and intelligence, and indeed, unusually, managed to
avoid the snobbish hostility of traditional aristocrats in so doing. Rulers had
also systematically used clerics, whether from the lite or not, as administra-
tors, from the Merovingians onwards, partly because they were more likely to
have writing skills, but also partly because they, too, were less likely to establish
local family traditions of office. A standard path instead was for successful
clerical courtiers to end up as bishops, as kings from Dagobert I in the seventh
century, through Otto I in the tenth, to Henry I and II of England in the twelfth,
would routinely ensure. But more and more, after 1150 or 1200, we can see an
entire career structure for an official stratum appearing, and a group identity in
some cases; these things were new. Let us look at a couple of examples of such
official careers, before we see how the procedures of government itself changed,
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 153

which was both a cause and a consequence of the growing professionalism of

its administrators.
Walter of Merton (c. 120577) is an example of a clerical career in England:
from a middling family in Hampshire, he gained a training in legal practice
from the priory of Merton in Surrey. After King Henry III happened to come
there in 1236, the year Walter seems to have become a priest, he began a career
in the office of the chancellor, who was then one of the two chief ministers of
the kingdom. In 1240 he was surveying royal lands in south-east England; in
the 1240s he was working in Durham in the north; by 1258 he was deputising
for the chancellor. In 126163 he became chancellor himself, in the middle of
the baronial revolt, and then again in 127274, for Edward I. Like plenty of his
predecessors, he became a bishop in the end (of Rochester, 127477), but that
was when he was nearly seventy, and it was by now a retirement perk rather
than the culmination of a career. He did well out of that career. From the 1240s
onwards, he accumulated more and more lands by careful and well-documented
dealing, and by the 1260s was very prosperous indeed; he used his lands to
found Merton college in Oxford in 1264, as a training ground for the next
generation of clerks, not least his numerous nephews.19
For a lay career, a good example is Guillaume de Nogaret (c. 12601313):
born in the countryside east of Toulouse, again from a non-lite family, he
became a Roman lawyer, and by 1287 he was a member of the law faculty at the
university of Montpellier in the far south of France. This brought him to royal
attention, and in 1293 he was dealing locally for Philip IV and was appointed a
royal judge at Beaucaire on the edge of Provence. So far, this was a normal
career of local preferment, but it was accelerated abruptly when in 1295 he
joined the royal court in Paris. Between then and his death, he was never far
from the kings interest: he was a royal commissioner in Champagne, a member
of the (largely judicial) parlement of Paris and the kings council, and then, in
130713, keeper of the seals, Frances rough equivalent to the English chan-
cellor. Guillaume was a hyper-loyalist, involved in Philips most questionable
actions: it was he who arrested Boniface VIII in 1303 (in a notably audacious
operation, and one which earned him the enmity of the next popes as well he
was not absolved until 1311), and he also set up the expulsion of the Jews from
France in 1306, and the show trials of the Templars after 1307. He did well out
of it, too, as Walter of Merton did; not excessively (he was feared and hated, but
never accused of systematic theft), but all the same he ended up locally powerful
between Montpellier and Beaucaire, whether by using Philips substantial cash
gifts or though direct royal grants. This early version of Thomas Cromwell
depended for his remarkable career not just on royal patronage and his own
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political skill, but also on an extensive training in Roman law, for it was this
which gave him the expertise necessary to deal as he did.20
Royal (and, in Italy, urban) government increasingly needed expertise,
simply because it was getting more complicated. We can most usefully explore
that complexity through discussions of writing, accountability, law and
problem-solving, and we shall look at each of them. In England, the pioneer
here since at least the time of Domesday Book, the numbers of written docu-
ments increased rapidly across the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries,
including still-surviving serial records of government finances on long parch-
ment rolls, beginning in the 1130s and extending to judicial and administrative
acts by the 1200s. That might be a sign of obsession rather than complexity, for
there is little sign that these rolls were regularly consulted; but Michael
Clanchys much-cited calculation that the amount of sealing wax used in the
English chancery multiplied by a factor of nearly ten between the late 1220s
and the late 1260s, from 3.6 to 31.9 pounds per week, is a guide to the signifi-
cance of this increase in documentation, for the wax was used to seal letters
which were actually sent to people from that office.21 The papal chancery,
whose registers survive almost continuously from Innocent III onwards, shows
a similar spiralling of activity. So do the surviving archives of Italian cities,
where public serial records begin to survive in different places in the thirteenth
century, as with the registers of criminal justice of Bologna and Perugia starting
in 1226 and 1258 respectively, or the Biccherna fiscal registers, balancing
incomings and outgoings, of Siena, which also start in 1226.22 The simple fact
that such registers began to be produced is a marker of scale, and inside them
the number of records once again steadily grows.
It is important to stress that this growth in written documentation is not
yet, in itself, a sign of increasing literacy, however that is to be defined (I mean
by it here the ability to read, and/or familiarity with the written word); that
trend was more a late medieval one. Indeed, the Carolingians, as we saw, had a
mostly literate aristocracy, probably more than was the case by 1200; they did
not depend exclusively on the clergy for writing skills, and dealt with writing in
a range of ways, both inside government and outside;23 but they nonetheless
produced fewer documents than many of the governments of far smaller terri-
tories by 1200. Rather, what had come to be common, and increasingly normal,
was the use of documents as part of everyday political communication at quite
mundane levels of business, including with people in the countryside whose
literate skills were by no means up to receiving them. In the ninth century,
Louis the Pious would have sent a messenger to tell a local assembly of his will
(even if that messenger often had a written text as well, as we saw earlier); in
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 155

the thirteenth, Edward I sent a short sealed writ, with specific addressees and
specific instructions, and kept a copy. Communications were much tighter as a
result. Information was also exchanged like this; governments increasingly
used writing to disseminate news, and got responses as well, at least in the form
of petitions.
This is not to say that kings and their advisers only, or even principally,
relied on this form of communication. (This is a good moment to add that the
increased use of writing was also only a technical tool; it did not change
anyones ability to express themselves, still less to think in different ways, as has
sometimes been claimed by historians and social theorists.) Oral communica-
tion was as important, just as it is today. Indeed, one frequently has the sense
that all those travellers from courts, whose updated political gossip is the main
meat of many a monastic chronicle, had been sent with that precise purpose in
mind, as a form of orally transmitted news-management, and news-gathering
(that is, spying) as well. But this, too, involved a much denser network of travel-
lers on official business than previous centuries had at their disposal a
network which the commercial changes of the period, discussed in the previous
chapter, made more normal too, as also did the growth of the Cistercian and
other monastic networks, and, soon, those of the friars, as we shall see later.
The letters of Abbot Lupus of Ferrires in West Francia in the 850s and 860s
sometimes show an anxious uncertainty about where the king even is; this
information was systematically broadcast in England by the early twelfth
century unless, of course, the king wished to keep it a secret.24 So: govern-
ments had more personnel; officials travelled and discussed state affairs more
systematically; they sent out documents far more frequently; they provided
local justice more often; and they took tax more systematically too, which both
paid for this increase in personnel and also because of the need for accurate
assessment, even if this was frequently done by the taxpayers themselves
increased the capillary presence of the state in the towns and villages of each
kingdom, principality, city territory of Europe. Italy and England followed this
path first; France (and its most governmentally elaborate principality, Flanders)
and Aragn soon after; Castile, Hungary and one or two of the German prin-
cipalities slightly later; the rest of northern and eastern Europe much more
slowly. But the direction was the same everywhere, and it was one towards an
ever-greater density in communication, between government and communi-
ties and back again, as well as a greater level of control.
To repeat: officials were normally loyal, but were also frequently corrupt.
How could one ensure that that corruption stayed within reasonable bounds?
The Carolingians faced this problem by demanding elaborate oaths to the king,
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by sending missi out on a regular basis to enquire whether justice was being
done by counts and other local representatives, and, more grandly, by organ-
ising collective penitence. The Carolingian tradition of a highly moralised
royal politics had gone everywhere by the early eleventh century, and it was
only really carried on later, as we have seen, as one of the elements which came
together, by now independently of secular powers, in the eleventh-century
church reform movement. But the idea of sending out central-government
inspectors, commissioners, enquirers, was an easy one to revive, if it had ever
really vanished. Twelfth-century English justices in eyre were one example,
papal legates and judges-delegate another. And, more and more, we find
specific and targeted inquests of local officials in England and France: the
Inquest of Sheriffs of 1170 in England, the root-and-branch commissions initi-
ated by the English barons in 125859, or the equally elaborate national
enqutes set up by Louis IX in France in and after 124748, all of which uncov-
ered local abuses and dealt with them on a considerable scale.25
On top of this, we find developing ideas of accountability which became
routinised, indeed often bureaucratic. England again shows an early example,
in place by the mid-twelfth century: the annual presentation of a countys
accounts by its sheriff to the Exchequer, so named because a chequerboard was
used as an abacus by the royal treasurer to check the figures while the sheriff
watched he was doubtless both puzzled and scared, and our best source for it,
Richard fitzNigels Dialogue of the Exchequer of the years around 1180, is
explicit that the theatricality of the occasion matched what he called a conflict
and struggle between the sheriff and the treasurer. Louis IX also ordained, his
biographer Joinville tells us, that baillis and other officials should stay in their
circumscription for forty days after their term of office ended so that complaints
could be heard against them a different form of accountability (the Exchequer
did not check for local bad behaviour, only debt and fraud) but nearly as organ-
ised. This was further elaborated in Italy, by the 1210s in cities such as Siena,
later in the thirteenth century in others, in the annual process known as sinda-
catio, in which the outgoing podest and other officials of each city remained
for a specific period until enquiries about their office had been completed,
which concerned both complaints against their justice and honesty and a check
on their economic management.26
This sort of process was a logical one to develop, especially once officials
started to handle a lot of money, as tax-raising rgimes would increasingly
need. The Abbasid caliphate, for example, by the end of the ninth century had
already developed a coercive version of it called musadara, in which outgoing
vizirs were systematically shaken down and often tortured, to extract from
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 157

them their illegal gains while in office.27 Like inquests, it was also a natural
consequence of the very old idea far older than the Carolingians that ruling
should be just in religious terms, which was policed not only by God, but also
by sensible humans who wished to avoid the sort of collective punishments
(natural disasters, losing wars) that the divinity might require from unjust
political systems. To this was added a more recent assumption that officials
could not be trusted, and that, in kingdoms, royal justice had to be at least
periodically visible on the ground without mediation. Counts and other high-
status representatives in the past had got away with far more, because to
second-guess them except in extreme circumstances was a breach of honour;
lower-ranking officials were the object of more careful scrutiny from the start.
But the development of a growing concern for exactness in the assessment of
governmental activity in the thirteenth century in Europe was, as in the
caliphate, a particular result of the growing complexity of institutions.
Such concerns were also a product of the increasingly explicit reliance on
elaborate legal systems and legal writings in these states. The word inquisitio
(hence inquest, enqute, enquiry, and also inquisition) itself comes from clas-
sical Roman law, and contains the assumption that judges will in some circum-
stances call witnesses independently from those offered by the accuser and the
accused; the Carolingians made such judicial inquisitiones, and the process
subsequently remained in use and in this period was increasingly used in
legal investigations. One of the most interesting features of the century and
more after 1150, however, is the increasing interest in Roman law itself,
throughout Europe, even in places where its remit did not actually run which
was most of Europe, in fact, for classical Roman law was the basic law only in
the Byzantine empire, and in some Italian cities. Most regions had fairly
substantial corpora of written law in 1150, in particular ex-Lombard Italy,
ex-Visigothic Spain and ex-Anglo-Saxon England (each of them using essen-
tially early medieval compilations), and also in Ireland although less so the
Frankish lands, France and Germany, by now. Icelanders, Norwegians and
Hungarians hurried to catch up as well.28 But Roman law dwarfed them all;
in its definitive written form, codified by Justinian in the 530s (see above,
Chapter 3), it was enormous in scale and elaboration, enough for a lifetimes
happy work for any lawyer who wished to get inside its interstices, and such
lawyers began to be active and influential in more and more of Europe.
Given the existence of these other, more indigenous and therefore more
relevant, legal systems, all of them regularly updated in local custom and prac-
tice, exactly why pre-sixth-century Roman rules seemed so useful in the late
twelfth and thirteenth is not always obvious. But their intellectual principles
158 medieval europe

were more explicit, which helped analysis, and their very elaboration allowed
lawyers to get a sense of just how detailed and subtle legal arguments could
be both of which also provided something formal to be trained in, increas-
ingly often at universities, at Bologna and Montpellier. The impact of Roman
law is anyway evident everywhere, including in England, where its systema-
tising influenced the great treatise on contemporary common law called
Bracton in (probably) the 1230s; in Castile, where Alfonso X commissioned a
comprehensive Spanish-language legal code, the Siete partidas, based largely
on Justinian; and in Philip IVs northern France, where southern Roman
lawyers were much in demand Guillaume de Nogaret was by no means the
only one. Bits of Roman law were increasingly borrowed to fill in the cracks of
local practices; whole sectors of it judicial torture being one of the most
obvious were brought into those local practices as signs of up-to-the-minute
legal expertise; justifications for political claims could be newly couched in
Romanist terms, as Frederick Barbarossa did in Italy; local custom could be
newly codified along Roman lines too, as Oberto dallOrto (d. 1175), a ruling
consul from Milan, did for the law of fiefs.29 And Roman law also heavily influ-
enced the only other legal system which matched it in elaboration, the canon
law of the church, also taught at universities (sometimes by the same teachers),
which unlike most other legal systems of this period was constantly updated
by new written laws, derived from church councils and the legal decisions of
popes, frequently enough in a Romanist direction.
This network of developments had a further consequence. Given the
number of people involved in government by now who were formally trained
(including in universities, where disputation was a standard teaching method),
given the disjunction between local laws and the elaborate legal-moral systems
which both Roman and canon law involved, and given the trend to detailed
accounting and inquest which accompanied office-holding, the idea that
governmental practices might be made to run better slowly gained ground as
well. Of course, once again, versions of this were old. The Carolingians, for
example, systematised government quite consciously, as part of correctio (see
Chapter 4), and streamlined much of it: missi, and also the continual issuing of
capitularies, are examples of the novelties which were generated as a result. But
that was in the context of a very high-flown need to reshape the whole Latin
Christian world under the eyes of God, and much of the streamlining seems
almost an accidental by-product of that wider ambition. Rulers (including
popes) and their advisers were less conscious later for a long time, and tended
to see governmental reform as either a return to a supposedly more perfect
past, or else an attempted alignment of their realms with those of their more
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 159

powerful neighbours, as with the newly Christianised kingdoms of the north

and east. Even real transformations, such as the appearance of consular-run
communes in Italy, were posed in the most traditionalist of terms by their
authors, when the changes were recognised at all. It would indeed not only
have been hard, but damning, to boast of novelty here, given the fragile legiti-
macy which consuls felt they had, with their elections by their peers and infe-
riors rather than a stable placement inside older hierarchies; only a second
generation, as with the uprising which produced the commune of Rome in
114344, could sometimes claim to innovate, as we shall see in a moment.30
The past was invoked by reformers in the thirteenth century as well: the English
barons of 1215 simply referred to the supposedly more just kingship of the past
when demanding changes in the present, and so, later, did the opponents of
Alfonso X, and of Philip IV at the end of his life. Change, which occurred in
this period as much as any other, was usually ad hoc, a response to immediate
problems, unintended to be a guide for the future for the most part, even when
it came to serve as the template for the next changes a generation later: the
growth in the role of parliament across the thirteenth century in England, both
before and after the quasi-coup of 1258, or the growth of the papal inquisition
from the 1230s, being good examples of this.
Slowly, however, from the mid-twelfth century onwards, we can find rulers
or (usually) their ministers beginning to tinker with governing structures,
much more deliberately. There are a number of examples from England of
ministers experimenting with different kinds of record-keeping, for example,
and then sometimes abandoning them if they did not work.31 The appearance
of podest in Italian cities, too, could be quite a conscious decision: as the offi-
cial Genoese Annals for 1190 put it, because of the envy of many men who
excessively desire to possess the office of the consulate of the commune, many
civil discords and odious conspiracies and divisions have greatly risen up in the
city. So it happened that the wise men and the counsellors of the city met
together and determined by common counsel that the consulate of the city
would cease in the following year, and almost [note that almost] everyone was
in agreement about having a podest. This was clearly seen as an emergency
measure in hard times, but it was new for all that (even if not as instant as it
sounds consuls and podest alternated in Genoa until 1217). So, less defen-
sively, was the proud foundation of the sacred Roman senate, the commune of
Rome of 114344, which was even used in dating clauses for communal docu-
ments thereafter, or the formal adoption of Roman law in Pisa on 31 December
1160, after a five-year period in which Pisas new law codes were researched
and written by constitutores.32 These examples of conscious innovation were as
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yet relatively few, but they extended the range of what was possible in govern-
ment. When, in the fourteenth century, we find for the first time a few theorists
of ideal rule who were not deriving it entirely from the theological environ-
ment in which discussions about moral rulership had traditionally been placed,
such as Bartolo of Sassoferrato in Italy, they were not totally isolated from a real
practical context; and that practical context would have more space for
conscious problem-solving, as well as innovative suggestions by government
critics, than it had done in the past. We will return to this later.
The final point that needs to be made here, picking up on arguments earlier
in this book, is that the processes of centralisation and the ever-growing density
of political power, which began above all in the period 11501300, were
differently based from that which had been taken for granted in, say, 800. The
classic early medieval combination (above all visible with the Carolingians) of
ex-Roman conceptions of public power and authority and north European
assembly politics, together with the assumption in the latter that legitimacy
(including, not least, justice) derived from collective presence and activity, had
gone, except in the England of long-lasting shire and hundred law courts.
State-building was by now based on different, cellular, units: the newly legal,
although of course highly exploitative, local lordships, large or small, of the
eleventh century to which we can now add the urban and rural communities
of the twelfth, which gained their own autonomy, where they could, inside and
against these lordships; and also dioceses, the cells of the international papal
network. We have seen all of these at work here and in the previous two chap-
ters.33 In Italy and Germany, the point is obvious, for the powers of kings were
retreating fast, and principalities and city collectivities occupied the terrain
instead. The French kings for their part united their kingdom brick by brick,
and each brick was one such lordship, either conquered directly or coerced into
making its theoretical loyalty to the crown real; conversely, the relations of
seigneurial domination (and opposition to it) inside each remained, some-
times for centuries the last feudal rights only going in 1790. The counts of
Catalonia who were one of the most successful princely families of the twelfth
century, and who took over the kingdom of Aragn as well in 1137 did the
same, but faced a collectivity of lords who in 1202 established the right to
mistreat their own dependent peasants without royal intervention, later
generalised as the ius maltractandi.34 (Even in England lords kept that right,
as long as their peasants were legally unfree.) In Castile, kings were almost
always hegemonic, but by 1200 they too presided over a patchwork of urban
jurisdictions (concejos) and lordships (seoros). The latter gained their own
typologies in royal texts: royal, monastic, lay, and collective (i.e. where many
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 161

co-lords split the seigneurial takings). Their lords, even though keen to asso-
ciate themselves with the royal court, Carolingian-style, thus had structured
local power-bases which few great Carolingian aristocrats ever had.35
Assembly politics related to power differently too. Whereas Carolingian
assemblies had been, at least in theory, gatherings of the free male population
of the kingdom, legitimating royal authority from the outside, the royal assem-
blies of 1200 in France, Castile, Aragn, England, were by now simply the
kings own court writ large. They would come to claim a wider legitimating
role: the phrase community of the realm appears in England in 1258, France
in 1314, and (reacting against English aggression) Scotland in 1320, in the
Declaration of Arbroath. But, although general ideas of kingdom-based
communities might have been old, these particular versions of it were recon-
structions of collective power, now based on the counterposing of the local
rights of lords to a newly assertive royal authority. We shall see in Chapter 12
how this developed further in later centuries.36
In the period of this chapter, in fact, what legitimated royal power was first
and foremost the personal loyalty of these lords. This was buttressed more and
more by rituals, notably the ceremony of homage, to make it more imposing
and convincing to the lords who swore it (and to their own men in their own
lordships, who did the same). Feudo-vassalic relations (see Chapter 1) were
indeed developed in large part simply to make that loyalty more formalised
and ritualised, and kings and lords hoped harder to break. Royal courts
became vastly more elaborate stage sets for aristocratic life in general, with new
forms of etiquette, including the norms of chivalric behaviour, which began in
the mid-twelfth century and were steadily refined for four centuries to come
(see Chapter 10). Such elaboration made them all the more alluring for aristo-
crats to be part of, indeed to learn to be part of, and in each case this strength-
ened royal authority, for the direction of this stage was royal, and was
punctuated by alarming shows of royal anger, carefully choreographed (even if
often only too real), and, if necessary, reconciliation. Walter Map in his book of
courtiers stories even likened the court of Henry II of England to hell, such
was the potential for disorientation and danger in it, but the whole book shows
its allure. Such public choreography had older roots once again, as Gerd Althoff
has shown, but it too gained steadily in complexity.37 The new claims to royal
authority which Roman law made possible and which fiscal needs often made
necessary, and the new practices of local control, were simply superimposed on
top of this. So were religious forms of royal legitimation, such as the trend for
each kingdom to have at least one king who was made a saint, thus sanctifying
his office too: in the kingdoms focused on in this chapter, Stephen I in Hungary
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in 1083, Henry II in Germany in 1147, Edward the Confessor in England in

1163, Louis IX in France in 1297, and most implausibly of all Charlemagne
himself in 1165.38 This new composite legitimation soon became very strong,
particularly where kings themselves were strong even if it did not prevent
unpopular or inept kings from trouble, even deposition, as with Edward II of
England in 1327, the accusation against whom stated that he abandoned his
kingdom and left it without government, his royal role being now separable
from his person.39 But its underpinnings had at their core the cellular structure
of local power.

* * *
We have in this chapter been looking at politics and political culture, but that
must be set against wider cultural trends as well. I will look here at two: the
development of what became universities, and the varying fortunes of lay reli-
gious commitment. Both fit into the picture of the interplay between the local-
ised patterning of political practice and the trends towards centralisation that
have been the focus of the foregoing, although in rather different ways.
The cathedrals and monasteries of Latin Europe had long educated not just
clerics but also the local laity, usually but not only aristocrats, in basic literacy,
plus, at a second level, grammar and rhetoric. Notaries organised their own
secular training in Italy, and at least informal law schools existed there by the
eleventh century too, at Pavia in particular. It the same period, some cathedral
schools, such as that of Bishop Fulbert (d. 1028) in Chartres, had enough
students that a critical mass of intellectual discussion was reached and argu-
ments multiplied very interestingly, much as the Aachen court school had
managed in the early ninth century. But it was the twelfth century which saw
the development of a new phenomenon, towns which attracted large numbers
of students, sometimes from many countries, to learn from masters whose
success was based on their teaching and debating ability, independent of
external ratification. Such students hoped for positions in secular government
and the church as a result, even if not all succeeded the myth of the impover-
ished scholar begins here, in twelfth-century Latin letters and poetry.40
Paris (for theology, from the 1090s) and Bologna (for law, from the 1120s)
were the main centres here, although Montpellier, Oxford, Padua, Salamanca
and others eventually joined them at a second level. Their development was
inseparable from the development of urban economies and a money-based
economy that allowed masters to earn a living and their students to be fed, as
discussed in the last chapter; but it moved fast in the early twelfth century. By
the 1150s, Bolognas main canon-law text, Gratians Concordance of discordant
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 163

canons, was structuring the legal disputes of more and more churches in Italy
and (soon) the entire papal appeals network, and Bolognas Roman lawyers
were advising Frederick Barbarossa. The studium of Bologna, and the usually
short-lasting rival studia which followed it after 1150 or so, became the major
training ground for Italys urban leadership thereafter. As for Paris, which
reached the critical mass that generates new ideas by 1100 at the latest, it
became the focus of some highly charismatic intellectuals. The best known of
these was Peter Abelard (d. 1142), whose innovative logic and theology,
vigorous and arrogant debating skills, and romantically tragic private life (he
had an intense affair with a student, Hlose, herself a serious intellectual
figure, and was castrated by her guardian) fascinated contemporaries, as it
fascinates historians still. Abelard became the bte noire of Bernard of Clairvaux,
the most powerful religious figure in northern Europe, and was condemned
for heresy (for a second time) as a direct result, but scholars influenced by him
and his extensive writings became important in the church, and in secular
government as well. It was Abelards style of logic-based theological enquiry
which made Bernard, a theologian himself but of a more interior-directed,
contemplative type, so angry, but it was the Abelardian style, toned down,
which would have a future in Paris, and the basic medieval theological text-
book, Peter Lombards Sentences of the 1150s, owed much to him.41
The early-twelfth-century Paris schools may have been fun, but they did not
offer a stable career structure; all the major figures in them ended up as bishops,
or in monasteries, as they got older. If masters wanted to stay in Paris, they had
to group together, in effect in a craft guild (universitas, a word used in Paris by
1208, meant guild, or indeed commune), to organise curricula united by
shared values rather than competition, and they did so. By the early thirteenth
century they had statutes regulating them; they had also gained privileges to
protect them against Parisian secular and church authorities, from the king of
France in 1200 and the pope in 120809. In 1229 they fell out with the regent of
France, Louis IXs mother Blanche of Castile, and abandoned Paris en masse,
until Pope Gregory IX moved rapidly to arbitrate and got the schools reopened
by 1231, issuing a bull to back this up.42 This bull is much more than a standard
papal legal decision or privilege; it is a full-blown mission statement for what
we can, by now, call the university, as a key location for learning, including an
element which was by the thirteenth century crucial in church activism,
learning how to preach. Gregorys involvement here is interesting, for it might
not be obvious that the health and success of the university of Paris would be
the concern of a pope, to the extent of him reissuing its statutes and inter-
veningin its curriculum, often in some detail. But the intellectual coherence of
164 medieval europe

the newly unified church was increasingly associated with what was taught in
Paris. Innocent III himself had been trained there, and into the thirteenth
century a high proportion of bishops and other church leaders had an educa-
tion from Paris (or from other theology-focused universities, such as Oxford or
Salamanca); a substantial percentage of the main religious intellectuals of
thirteenth-century Europe taught there too, culminating in the south Italian
aristocrat Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), whose strikingly intelligent and system-
atic works are still points of reference for western theology.
An important aspect of these developments is, of course, that they are
another example of the growing institutionalisation of power across the period
11501300. This was partly the simple routinisation of the charismatic figures
of the start of the twelfth century, whose role could not realistically have been
maintained; indeed, the masters already stand out less from our sources after
1150, until the major scholars of the mid-thirteenth century and onwards. But
it is partly, as with government, a sign of a greater felt need for control. In fact,
it never was possible fully to control what went on in universities; every master
had his own view on all issues. This was ever more visible once public disputa-
tions began to be recorded in the thirteenth century, with questions to the
master on all manner of subjects and his replies; these were called quodlibets,
and they were often distributed widely. But this carried its own risks, not least
the danger of disseminating heresy, and for this reason popes and other powers,
both external and internal to universities, found themselves trying to micro-
manage: both the content of what was taught (as with, for example, how much
Aristotle and Averroes could be taught, given that these authors were not
Christian) and who could teach it (as with the perennial debate from the 1250s
onwards about the role of friars in the university of Paris). Popes, and also
secular rulers, indeed have kept an eye on universities ever after; as potential
powerhouses both of lite education and intellectual critique, they have been
too important to let hold of entirely. But all the institutionalisation and external
control of universities that could be put in place did not alter the fact that they
were essentially cellular intellectual structures whose legitimacy sprang from
the success of the individual masters who made them up.

* * *
Lay religious culture was even more localised, and it presented very different
challenges to central authorities. In the eleventh century, as we saw in Chapter
6, some lay groups began to formulate their own, locally varying, versions of
Christian values and practice, and to come up with answers which sometimes
fitted those of clerical reformers, but sometimes could be labelled as heresy.
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 165

After 1150 or so this was much more common; the growing availability of
Biblical texts which could be read independently by lay men and women, who
were either literate or had access to what Brian Stock has called textual commu-
nities of readers and listeners, allowed religious involvement to take a variety
of forms not least because Europe was so politically fragmented.43 Sometimes
this resulted in new monastic or canonical foundations, as in previous centu-
ries the Premonstratensians, the Gilbertines and so on, and, in the crusader
states and later in the west too, the military orders of the Templars and the
Hospitallers which, whether successful or not, at least fitted standard models
of hierarchical religious commitment. Sometimes, however, activists remained
in their own communities, and preached their own version of Christian purism.
One such, Valdes, a layman from Lyon, sought preaching rights for his followers
from Pope Alexander III in 1179, at the Third Lateran Council; these were
granted only if the local church allowed however, and the new archbishop of
Lyon refused, expelling them. The Waldensians did not give up preaching,
and so were increasingly lumped together with other heretics and sporadically
persecuted, although surviving in the valleys of the Alps until they were
absorbed into sixteenth-century Protestantism.44 Another group, the female
ascetics of the Low Countries known as Beguines (a founding figure was Mary
of Oignies, d. 1213), who lived by weaving in large part, stayed somewhat on
the margins of local ecclesiastical structures and faced intermittent suspicion,
although they were certainly absorbed into the religious life of at least the
Flemish towns.45 Luckier was Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), a convert to total
poverty in 1205 in the face of his merchant father, and a charismatic leader of
friars, literally brothers matched by their female counterparts the Poor
Clares, founded by Franciss associate Chiara of Assisi (d. 1253) who were not
allowed to touch money and whose preaching was funded by alms. Francis,
who always fully accepted ecclesiastical authority, impressed Innocent III,
who allowed his friars to preach in 1209. Franciss personal ascetic practice was
so extreme that there was a constant tension after his death (even before,
indeed) between followers who wished to maintain his practice entirely and
other followers who thought it needed to be adapted to the ongoing needs of
real life. Whether the first group, the Spiritual Franciscans, was potentially
heretical was an issue by the end of the thirteenth century. Conversely, the
main body of Franciscan friars eventually did well by doing good, and their
giant and expensive hall-churches are still one of the notable features of late
medieval architecture on the edges of many a city (not least Assisi) today;
the Franciscans remained suspended between power and marginality in
interesting ways.46
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Where the Cathars came from and what they believed is more of a problem.
It was obscure then, and there is a considerable debate about it now. Were they
dualists, believing that the world was created by an evil God and that procrea-
tion should be abandoned, and linked institutionally to the dualist Bogomil
church of Bulgaria? Or is this picture the invention of the churchs own inquis-
itors, over-influenced by a knowledge of ancient heresies, and prone to
persuade the unfortunate men and women who were pulled into their net to
confess heretical beliefs which were really only in the inquisitors own minds,
much as witchcraft confessions were secured in the early modern period? It has
been pointed out that the most complex accounts of their beliefs come precisely
from inquisition records, which furthermore do not become dense until the
1240s, by which time the movement was increasingly in hiding from persecu-
tion everywhere. This debate has led to a notable sharpening of the sophistica-
tion of textual analysis in historians studies of Cathar beliefs and heresy in
general. On balance, it seems most probable that a dualist theology was indeed
a feature of committed believers, who often had some form of organisational
structure too, but that only some of the most active Cathars necessarily knew
or cared much about it.47 What is not in dispute, however, and it is more impor-
tant for us here, is that by the mid- to late twelfth century, in the cities of
communal Italy and in both cities and countryside in Languedoc and the
Toulousain in France, there were numerous groups of celibate laity called good
men and good women (only in Italy were they regularly called Cathars, and
only by opponents, although I use the label here for convenience), who
preached the good religious life autonomously of the church; they sometimes
lived as artisans, and were often vegan. They denied the spiritual validity of the
church hierarchy, unlike the Beguines and Franciscans, and sometimes also
major church rites such as baptism. The main rite they practised was the
consolamentum, the formal entry into their own ranks, which ordinary laity
tended to take on at their deathbeds. As with the Waldensians and others, such
lay religiosity and autonomous local ritual had clear antecedents in the previous
century and more, but here it was moving in rather more original directions.
Anyway, whatever the detailed beliefs of the good men and women, their rejec-
tion of the church hierarchy was clearly heretical by the orthodox standards of
the age, even though, to the ordinary lay Christians of Italy and southern
France, their personal virtue seems to have been their most important charac-
teristic (there are examples in Italy of recognised saints who were later
condemned as heretics, sometimes with little effect on their local cult48). Their
difference from the friars, in particular, may not have seemed very great, except
when friars were the inquisitors.
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 167

There were rumbles in church councils about the Cathars by the mid-
twelfth century, and sporadic attempts to oppose them on a local level. Later,
increasing pressure was put on Count Raymond VI of Toulouse (11941222)
to deal with them in his territories (interestingly, similar pressure was never
put systematically on the Italian cities), which Raymond resisted; but, when
Innocent IIIs legate in the Toulousain was murdered in 1208, the pope called a
crusade against the count and the heretics, the notorious Albigensian Crusade.
North French knights poured into Languedoc and the Toulousain under the
leadership of Simon de Montfort (father of the baronial rebel in England in
125865) and laid it waste for a decade and more, massacring its inhabitants on
occasion too.49 We have seen that this led to north-French rule in the south,
eventually at least. But it also led to a notable extension of the practice of inqui-
sition, and soon to its theorisation as well, as inquisitors handbooks were
written and rules for how hearings should be held were laid down which,
however little we identify with inquisitors, was better than heretic-finders
destroying lives at random, as had been a feature of several early anti-heresy
campaigns. One prominent figure in Languedoc after 1206 was the Castilian
ascetic Dominic of Caleruega (d. 1221), who believed that in order to confront
the Cathars one should adopt the same sort of vows of poverty as the good
men and women; his order of friars was given preaching rights by the pope in
1217. The Dominicans were thus in the front line of anti-Cathar activity from
the start, and, when inquisition became more regularised, from the 1230s on,
both they and the Franciscans, as the two main orders of lay preachers, were its
mainstay. This was steadily extended across France and Italy; eventually
Catharism lost ground, and was rare by 1300. This did not affect the wider
spread of autonomous lay religious activism, however, which remained exten-
sive in the late middle ages, as we shall see later.
The stress on preaching in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and in
Gregory IXs bull for Paris university in 1231 was partly related to the perceived
need to combat heresy, and to help establish church authority as a result. Both
Dominicans and Franciscans moved very swiftly into teaching at Paris, as part
of their preaching training indeed, they provided many of the most promi-
nent intellectuals of the century (Aquinas was a Dominican, for example). But
the sense that there should be a major push to develop preaching was a wider
feature of the church in the thirteenth century in particular, and it came to be
seen as a major element in the presence of the church on the ground; preaching
had, certainly, been seen as part of church ritual since the early middle ages,
but from now on, explaining the nature of the faith to the laity was ever more
important.50 This meant trying to get parish priests to preach more (not always
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successfully), and handbooks for them became more common now; but the
friars fitted into this as well, and their constant travelling, even if usually
focused on towns rather than the countryside, extended preaching further.
This had to mean that more and more laity would know about the details of
the Christian faith, and this was indeed the churchs precise aim. Religious
enthusiasm could hit the laity on a large scale, as with the Alleluia of 1233,
preached by friars, which excited citizens of a number of Italian cities from
Parma to Verona and resulted in mass revival meetings.51 This, as usual, had
its risks, for it is certainly true that, as with Cathars and Waldensians fifty
years before, a better-informed laity, or at least its religious-minded minority,
could end up with the wrong beliefs; but that was a danger which existed
anyway. More important by now was that lay religiosity, now that it was more
formally recognised, could and should be channelled by church direction, as
for example in the rapid growth of religious confraternities after 1250, which
became an important part of late medieval collective activism, linking craft
guilds to parish communities.52 The dialectic between church direction and lay
ingenuity in finding new forms of religious commitment would continue
The move by popes to combat heresy has more or less exactly the same
pacing as the growth of papal government through the appeals process, and on
one level it has the same root: overall, popes and other church leaders were
centralising the church, and wished to control all aspects not only of religious
practice, but also belief. Whether or not one sympathises with their aims or
(still less) methods, one can scarcely say that helping humans to what they saw
as salvation was not their proper role. But since full control of belief was not
possible it still is not, of course, even with modern technologies religious
leaders overreached. Jews, in particular, found their lives increasingly circum-
scribed in many parts of Europe, largely because of church pressure, as we shall
see in Chapter 10. Bob Moore and John Boswell have argued that lepers and
homosexuals faced greater exclusion and persecution too: all out-groups, that
is to say, were more visible and faced more trouble, in this would-be homoge-
neous Latin European society.53 The intolerant and coercive pursuit of homo-
geneity would continue in later centuries too; it would be developed even more
systematically in the charged religious atmosphere of the sixteenth century.

* * *
In this chapter, I have been arguing that late-twelfth- and thirteenth-century
western Europe was reconstructed as (in most cases) a set of more centralised
powers, on top of a new basis, the cellular politics of the eleventh century. Law
The ambiguities of political reconstruction, 11501300 169

gave a stronger framework for control, and techniques of communication and

accountability made control more operative in practice, but the cells, that is to
say local lordships and urban or rural communities, were for the most part left
in place. When we come to the increasing centralisation of belief, the same
basic techniques were used: record-keeping, manuals, checks on bad behav-
iour by officials (friars who went too far in the inquisition could be investigated
and sometimes brought down),54 a legislative backing in the form of papal
decrees. It is harder to say that there was a formalised pattern of communities
of belief underpinning that; popes and other ecclesiastical theorists would
certainly have disagreed they claimed an equal power over all individuals, in
a way that kings did not. But belief communities were at least divided up insti-
tutionally by the cellular structure of dioceses; and, above all, the practical
differences in beliefs which did in reality exist, from region to region, town to
town, village to village, as expressed (among other things) in the forms of lay
religiosity we have looked at, acted as a similar kind of brake on this newly
ambitious ecclesiastical vision. Every time we read the accounts of what inquis-
itors actually found in the rural neighbourhoods of southern France, and then
Italy, and then, a century or two later, in England and Spain, we find societies
which had made their own minds up about what was important and how
things worked, in the spiritual as much as the temporal world.55 As with magni-
fying glasses in the sun, the inquisitors vision burned, badly, those upon whom
it focused, but no-one could reach everywhere, and certainly in the medieval
period no-one tried. There were plenty of local, sometimes downright strange,
beliefs left, for later outsiders to uncover, if they ever did.
chapter nine

1204: the failure of alternatives

The western European kingdoms, which we have just looked at, were riding
high by the thirteenth century, but until then they were not the only powerful
Christian states in Europe, or indeed the most powerful. In 1025, at the death of
the emperor Basil II, his empire we call it Byzantine, but, as we saw earlier, he
and his subjects called it Roman, as Augustus and Justinian had was beyond
doubt the strongest political system of the continent. It stretched from the
Danube to Antioch, and from Bari in southern Italy to what are now the borders
of Iran. That is to say, the Balkans, Greece, Anatolia (what is now Turkey) and
the south Italian mainland were all governed by a single and cohesive political
structure, with a complex fiscal system which was unmatched by that of any
medieval Latin power, and ruled from a capital, Constantinople, which was
then, at probably well over a quarter of a million inhabitants, the largest city
that ever existed in medieval Europe.1 Indeed, until the last years of the twelfth
century, Byzantine wealth and power, although by now reduced territorially,
was still greater than that of any western polity. All the same, a few decades later,
that empire had vanished. Turks controlled the Anatolian plateau; the Balkans
were in the hands of Serbian and Bulgarian rulers. Constantinople itself had
fallen in 1204 to the French and Italian troops of the Fourth Crusade, which
had notoriously been diverted from its initial aim of attacking Muslim Egypt,
and instead had destroyed a Christian political system. Confronting the small
new Latin empire of Constantinople, and a Venetian takeover of the Greek
islands, were not one Byzantine government in exile but three, based at Nicaea
(modern znik), Trebizond (modern Trabzon) and Arta in north-west Greece,
together with smaller lordships elsewhere in Greece. Although Latin-ruled
Constantinople fell in its turn to the Nicaean emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos
in 1261, united Byzantine power was never re-established. The Byzantine impe-
rial system was a genuine alternative pattern for European development to that
lived through by the western powers, but after 1204 it was, quite simply, lost.

1204: the failure of alternatives 171

Why does this matter? In part, because the break-up of the Byzantine
empire is, in itself, as large a political event as the similar break-up of the
western Roman empire, and is as complex to explain. In practice, less analysis
has been devoted to it than to the fate of the western empire, partly because the
Fourth Crusade itself, although it was only part of the process, has seemed
fairly straightforward to explain (crusader greed, Venetian cynicism, imperial
ineptness); but it deserves attention in a book such as this. In part, also, because
if we are to understand how medieval European history took the directions it
did, we need also to get a sense of some of the opportunities that were forfeited.
The Byzantine empire at its height was a major medieval success story, a key
point of reference, and Europeans outside its remit knew it, not least the
Carolingians and the Ottonians.2 It was a model for governance elsewhere,
from the Rus of the tenth century to the Sicily and the Hungary of the twelfth.
When it failed, its techniques of government were no longer available to Latin
Europe, and had to be reinvented, which took a long time. The heirs of the
Byzantines, and the re-establishers, in the century after 1350, of the scale of
empire which Basil II had controlled (and eventually still more), were instead
the Ottoman Turks, whose Muslim religion meant that they were, like the
earlier caliphates, never likely models for the rest of Europe. But by 1204
Byzantium was no longer a model either; hence, indeed, the ease with which it
could be destroyed. We need to get an idea of why.
As we saw in Chapter 3, the Byzantine crisis of the early middle ages was
over by the mid-ninth century. Basil I (86786), a usurper of apparently peasant
origin, then established the Macedonian dynasty which lasted nearly two
centuries, to 1056. Its existence did not prevent others seizing power the
dynastic principle was never strong in Byzantium but the family maintained
a legitimacy, and were constantly returned to, until they died out. During
Basils reign, the coherence of the Abbasid caliphate began to slip, with a period
of crisis in the 860s followed by two decades of civil wars; Basil took advantage
of this and began to attack eastwards over the Tauros mountains in central
Anatolia, which had been the effective ByzantineArab boundary for two
centuries, as well as conquering half of southern Italy, which partly made up for
the war being lost in Sicily. When the Abbasids faced their final crisis, in the
930s and onwards, Byzantine armies returned to attacking eastwards, and
began to conquer here as well. Between the 930s and the 960s they occupied
the upper Euphrates valley, stably, as well as capturing the main Arab-controlled
islands in the eastern Mediterranean, Crete and Cyprus, and by 969 had moved
into Syria, taking Antioch. From this secure Anatolian and Aegean base they
then moved westwards, taking over Bulgaria in 971; this did not hold, and a
172 medieval europe

restored Bulgarian empire, led by Samuel (9971014), had to be fought and

defeated in thirty years of campaigning, but after 1018 the whole of the Balkans
was under stable Byzantine control too. This was the work of a series of notably
able aristocratic generals, some of whom seized power as emperors (the most
effective was Nikephoros II Phokas, the conqueror of the 950s and 960s, who
ruled in 96369); but the Macedonian heir Basil II (9761025) was his own
general, and was the architect of the Bulgarian campaigns, as well as extending
his authority even further east, into Armenia.3
There were two sides to this century and a half of successful aggression. The
first was a paid and professional army. The Byzantines had survived in the
seventh century by organising defence in depth, based on the military prov-
inces of the empire, the themata; although semi-professional thematic armies
remained at the basis of military engagement, emperors increasingly relied on
permanent paid and trained units, who were the shock troops of the conquest
period. The Byzantines were proud of their military system, and even theo-
rised its organisation; the Macedonian period saw the writing of several mili-
tary handbooks, some of them the works of emperors themselves, notably the
Taktika of Leo VI (886912).4 The second side was that a paid army also
required a fiscal system which was robust enough to pay for it, year after year
for the Byzantines were almost permanently at war in this period, especially
from the 950s to the 1010s. No western state of the period could have managed
this, but, as we saw in Chapter 3, the Byzantines had never abandoned, and
never would abandon, a land tax, which by the mid-ninth century was collected
in both money (the Byzantines minted coin on a large scale) and, in campaigning
areas, supplies. Basil IIs state was indeed sufficiently organised that he managed
to build up a very large fiscal surplus in coin by the end of his reign, despite
fighting campaigns so regularly; underground tunnels were said to have been
built to house the money, a long-standing literary image of wealth and avarice.5
A western state would have expected its aristocrats to run its armies, and
Byzantium was, by now, no different; from the ninth century, a military aris-
tocracy developed, with lands largely on the Anatolian plateau, and with mili-
tary command inherited from father to son in some cases (the Phokas family is
a particularly good example). But the armies were separate from them; they
had careers in the army, rather than providing the army themselves, and there
were always generals whose family backgrounds were highly obscure. The
Byzantine aristocracy was also never, before the twelfth century at the earliest,
locally dominant in most of the empire, except probably its central Anatolian
heartland; Byzantium had a substantial independent peasantry, which made
up thematic militias, as well as and above all being the major source of tax
1204: the failure of alternatives 173

receipts. Aristocrats could not easily go it alone under these circumstances,

and opposition to imperial power tended to be in the form of attempted usur-
pations, not provincial separatism.6
This fiscal system needed people to run it, and Constantinople had a very
substantial bureaucracy of officials, who ran every sector of government in
complex hierarchies as it had under the Roman empire, although they were
by now substantially reconfigured. The capital itself was so large that it required
officials to run it too, headed by the eparch, the direct heir of the urban prefect
of the sixth century. The latter had organised the state-run grain supply for the
late Roman city, which had ended with the Persian conquest of Egypt in 618;
but the city, expanding again in its population from the eighth century, became,
as we have seen, very large by the eleventh, and emperors could not risk it
running out of food they could and did fall if the urban populace turned
against them. The task of managing a food supply which, although by now
supplied by private landowners and merchants, had to come from all over the
empire, was substantial, and the surviving regulations in the Book of the eparch
show that, by 900, eparchs fixed prices or regulated the terms of trading for
every major foodstuff.7 The imperial aristocracy was important in the civilian
administration too, and it was as well paid as the army. (It used to be thought
that a civil and a military aristocracy were opposed to each other, but this is not
true there was no structural difference between them, and generals could be
bureaucrats at other times, as well as having career bureaucrats as brothers.)
The western diplomat Liutprand of Cremona (d. 972) records the Easter ritual
of paying officials as he saw it in 950: the emperor himself handed out heavy
bags of gold coins to his senior officials in order of status, across a three-day
period, and then the head of the imperial bedchamber paid lesser officials
across the next week. This was part of the highly elaborate ceremonial of the
empire, which was expressed also, at least in Constantinople, in an extensive
network of processions, criss-crossing the capital but usually focused on the
great church of Hagia Sophia at the eastern end of the city; these were arranged
according to the liturgical cycle of the church, but also included complex rules
for imperial entry and triumphs after successful war. The population of the
capital was involved in this processional practice, and it was an important part
of imperial presence and legitimacy in the city.8
Court culture in Constantinople was dense and complicated too. All the
Byzantine lite were literate, in a way that the post-Carolingian west would not
match for centuries; career soldiers could write books (Nikephoros Phokas
provided at least the notes for a military handbook; Kekaumenos in the 1070s
produced an advice manual for statecraft); rural landowners could have
174 medieval europe

substantial libraries, as with the eighty books left in his will by Eustathios
Boilas in 1059, including Christian religious classics and secular romances.9
In the capital, however, leading bureaucrats were highly educated in theology
and literature, from Homer onwards, and many of them were writers as also
were emperors, not only Leo VI: his son Constantine VII (91320, 94559)
wrote an analysis of the empires neighbours, and at least some of the Book
of ceremonies, the long basic handbook of the processions of the capital, in
which he associates them explicitly with the order and dignity of power.10
Intellectuals could write elaborate poetry and prose for emperors, often in
very difficult, by then archaic, Greek; a literary world was kept in play (and
documented for us) by an extensive formalised letter-writing culture. This
world claimed to be very traditional literary accomplishment was supposed
simply to imitate the classical past but in reality it was innovative both in
genres and in content: Constantinople after 850, like Aachen after 800 and
Paris after 1100, had enough resources to train enough intellectuals to establish
a critical mass of new thinking. There is significant theological writing from
career officials, from the official-turned-patriarch Photios (d. c. 893) onwards;
and the legal knowledge necessary to translate Justinians whole legal corpus
into Greek in the years around 900 and reorder it as the Basilika, turning it into
a functioning law code for the empire, was very considerable.11 Later, Michael
Psellos (d. c. 1078), a courtier of and sometimes a senior minister for seven
emperors (he survived even though they were often highly opposed to each
other), and author of one of the most significant and complex historical
accounts of the eleventh century, the Chronographia, as well as letters, rhetoric,
philosophy and scientific treatises, saw himself in effect as a new Plato, and
commanded a remarkable range of neo-Platonist writing as well as the standard
run of classical and Christian authors.12
Byzantium expanded its influence culturally as well. The Bulgarian khaga-
nate which had stabilised itself inside imperial borders in the late seventh
century, when it faced more effective aggression from Constantinople in the
mid-ninth century than it had before, recognised the need to adopt Byzantine
styles of ruling to survive, and accepted Christianity in 865, much as the Poles
did a century later, as we have seen. By 913, the Constantinople-educated
Symeon (893927) was recognised by the Byzantines as emperor, tsar in Slavic
(the Slavic component in Bulgarian culture was from now on dominant), and
Bulgarian government became highly Byzantine in inspiration. This worked,
in that it was the direct reason why the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria was
such a long-drawn-out process.13 From Bulgaria, Byzantine-style Christianity
could also be exported to other Slavic groups, and in the late ninth century
1204: the failure of alternatives 175

there developed a Slavic-language, Slavonic, liturgy, based on a newly invented

Cyrillic alphabet which had a long future. The next people to follow Bulgarias
lead were the Ryurikid princes of Kiev, of Scandinavian origin but ruling a
Slavic-language people; these were by now called the Rus, a word originally
meaning Scandinavian but by now firmly attached to the Slavic-speakers
under Kievs rule, in the core lands of what would later be called Russia. The
ruling princess Olga (c. 94565) converted personally in Constantinople in
c. 955; her grandson Vladimir (9721015), Basil IIs ally, formally declared Rus
to be a Christian polity around 988.14
The Rus did not face the same dangers from Byzantium that the Bulgars
did. Kiev lay on the edge of the forests beyond the steppe corridor, which was
in general a land of Turkic-speaking nomads, as the Bulgars had been once; the
steppe was currently ruled by the Khazar khaganate, which had adopted
Judaism as a religion, the only realm in medieval history ever to do so. The
rulers of Rus were indeed often enough also called khagans, Turkic-style, and
developed a system of tribute influenced by Turkic models. For the Rus as for
the Danes of the same period, Byzantine Christianity was simply a useful extra,
which brought with it an ecclesiastical organisation headed by a metropolitan
bishop, artisans to build the largest Byzantine church still surviving from the
eleventh century, St Sophia in Kiev, and also a culture of writing which would
be important for government as it developed. As with Bulgaria, however, what
it also brought was Slavicisation. Kiev was fully Slavic already, and indeed
Vladimir and his father Svyatoslav already had Slavic names; but it is signifi-
cant that their other major political centre, Novgorod in the far north, founded
by Scandinavians in a Baltic-speaking area, was almost wholly Slavic-writing
and Cyrillic-using by the time of the first birchbark documents found there
these survive in many hundreds, starting in the 1030s, in waterlogged excava-
tions, and are still being found.15
Rus was a huge area, the size of Germany, and almost entirely forested;
communications by river were good, but the area could not be controlled in
depth with tenth-century technologies, and would not be for centuries. The
fur-trappers, and then, increasingly, peasant agricultural settlements in the
midst of the forests, simply handed over tribute to the princes and their
druzhina or military entourage, via a network of trading towns. As Russian
ruling princes tended to have many sons, the towns were divided up between
them. Vladimir himself had started in Novgorod, and only reunited Rus in
978. His son Yaroslav (101554) did the same, becoming prince of Kiev and
sole ruler in 1036. None of Yaroslavs sons or descendants ever united Kievan
Rus again, however, before the fifteenth century. Kiev remained the senior
176 medieval europe

principality, but by 1100 there were a dozen princes, all related and each with
his own druzhina, fighting it out. Three areas were particularly important, Kiev
itself, Novgorod, and increasingly a fringe area to the north-east around the
towns of Suzdal and Vladimir, which, once it was cleared of forest, was fertile
land. By the late twelfth century, this was for the most part the dominant prin-
cipality. But the Ryurikids were still fighting when the Mongols appeared in
123740, to sack Russian towns and to reduce the princes to tribute-paying
subjects. The Mongols were almost entirely a negative force, with their tendency
to mass killing and brutal exploitation nearly everywhere they attacked;
even their very brief appearance in Hungary did that kingdom serious damage,
as we have seen. But, from now on, the steppe corridor, regularly so dangerous
to early medieval European states, was above all dangerous to the Russian

* * *
Basil II was a highly charismatic emperor, even if in a humourless and unmer-
ciful mould. His successors were less so, and were also not as long-lived: the
longest continuous reign between 1025 and 1081 was thirteen years, and
policy-making was less continuous in this period. Until the 1060s these were
decades of peace for the most part, with the empire not seriously under threat,
but a bad sign was the Norman takeover of most of Byzantine Italy in the 1050s,
for imperial armies were hardly able to confront it at all. Given the peace, fears
of usurpation and financial problems led to military pay arrears and a decrease
in the size of the army, and the thematic troops, a basically defensive force,
largely disbanded. This did not help matters when the empire came to face a
military danger on a scale not matched since the ninth century, the Seljuq
Turks, who had, from their central Asian base, conquered half the Muslim
world since the 1030s; they were moving into Armenia by the 1050s and into
Anatolia shortly after. In 1071 Romanos IV faced them in a pitched battle near
the eastern border at Manzikert, and lost; the Byzantine army melted away,
and, although the Seljuq rulers did not move systematically into Anatolia, ad
hoc Turkish groups, plus rebel Byzantine mercenaries, turned the plateau into
a political vacuum. Civil war made things worse, and a long-ruling Byzantine
emperor did not reappear until Alexios I Komnenos (10811118). By then,
however, the Turks had moved far to the west and were attacking the Aegean;
they soon established themselves in some of the major cities in Constantinoples
immediate hinterland, such as Nicaea and Smyrna (modern zmir). Alexios
also faced attacks in the Balkans from the Normans, after the latter had wrapped
up Byzantine Italy, and from Turkic semi-nomadic groups directly from the
1204: the failure of alternatives 177

steppes; he defeated them by 1091, and stabilised his Balkan power. But he had
lost control of most of Anatolia, and the situation worsened in the early 1090s.16
This was when Alexios asked for western support, and Urban II preached
the First Crusade in 1095 as a result. The main crusader contingent reached
Constantinople in 1097, and was indeed able to retake Nicaea for Alexios,
allowing him to regain power in the eastern Aegean as well. By the time the
crusaders finally took Antioch and Jerusalem a year later, however, relations
with Alexios had broken down (historians still argue as to whose fault this
was), and the rest of the crusade did not bring any returns for the Byzantines,
but, instead, a set of unstable and often resentful Latin principalities in Syria
and Palestine, to add to the Turkish amirates which slowly crystallised in
central Anatolia, notably the Seljuqs of Rum, based in Konya. This was from
now on the new geopolitics. Alexios had retaken western Anatolia, and his
son John II and grandson Manuel I (114380) re-established Byzantine power
along the south coast too, but henceforth Byzantium, unlike in the eighth to
tenth centuries, was far more a European power than an Asian one, and the
emperors not only did not retake the Anatolian plateau, but barely tried to: the
only serious attempt, in 1176, was a disastrous failure.17
This looks menacing on a map, but in fact was not. Central Anatolia became
Turkish for ever, but Byzantium was not again threatened from the east until
the very different world of the fourteenth century. What the Byzantines lost
was their aristocratic heartland, and many of the great families of the tenth and
eleventh century had lost their power by the twelfth as a result; what was left
was essentially nostalgia, as for example in the great verse romance Digenis
Akritis, a twelfth-century evocation of border warfare on the plateau, with a
hero of mixed Arab and Greek birth.18 The main survivors were the Komnenoi
themselves, and the closely related Doukai, whose power-base moved to
government, for Alexios and his successors put family members into high posi-
tion everywhere, inventing new titles for them as they did. Alexios indeed used
his mother Anna Dalassene in effect as his finance minister, bringing into
government the gender roles of the family economy. The culture of coups
ended for a century, and government stabilised without otherwise having to
change much certainly the taxation system did not change, and we have more
evidence of a densely organised judicial system. The army maintained its struc-
ture as a paid and professional force, although here there was a greater tendency
than in previous periods to recruit from abroad, and there are by now examples
of military men being given land or local tax rights, pronoia, in lieu of pay. This
was complained about by the early thirteenth-century chronicler Niketas
Choniates, keen to find the internal roots of imperial collapse around 1200,
178 medieval europe

and stressed by modern historians, keen to find parallels to western military

feudalism, but not yet significant.19
The high Komnenian period in fact was in most respects as stable as the
empire of Basil II. Constantinople was at least as large and rich as before, and
helped in that by a clear economic upswing in the twelfth century in the
Aegean. This was fuelled, as in the west, by demographic growth, and added to
by the fact that the period shows a expansion of large landowning, both eccle-
siastical and lay, at the expense of peasants. By this time in most of western
Europe, such an expansion was complete, but in Byzantium, as we have seen,
an independent peasantry had always been numerous, and private wealth came
from official salaries paid by tax-receipts, as much as or more than from rent-
collecting from family lands. From now on, however, as large landowning
developed, peasants often had to face paying both tax and rent at once. That
renewed exploitation provided more lite buying power, and thus more
exchange. Wine specialisations were beginning to appear on the Greek islands,
and olive specialisations in the Peloponnesos; mulberry production for silk
was focused in several areas, with significant silk-weaving at Thebes and
Corinth in central Greece, and exports not only to the capital but westwards as
well. Excavations show that major towns such as Corinth had diversified
productions, glass, pottery and metal as well as silk; other towns had signifi-
cant markets. In the capital, the Book of the eparch gives clear evidence for trade
guilds already by 900, and production was certainly strongest of all there.20
Overall, Byzantine economic growth may not have equalled that of northern
Italy or Flanders, but it at least matched that of most other parts of the west.
This prosperity for some further funded the fiscal system and thus the
armies of the state; and it allowed the intellectual life which is so visible in the
tenth and eleventh centuries to continue as well. The same array of literary
interests among political actors is documented, indeed in greater density (not
least Alexioss daughter Anna Komnene and her husband Nikephoros
Bryennios, both of whom wrote histories), and there were novelties as well,
such as satire. As part of that, we begin to find the kind of literary complaints
about the unfairness of poverty, if one is educated, which Paris shows in the
same period that is to say, here too, people were buying education in hopes
for social mobility, and not always being successful.21
That wealth and that cultural bounce had its counterpart in politics.
Byzantium by now had more structured relationships with the west than ever
before, given that western links to the crusader states and the crusades them-
selves passed across Byzantine-controlled sea and land routes. Indeed, Italian
ships, from Venice, Pisa and Genoa, from now on carried much of Byzantiums
1204: the failure of alternatives 179

sea traffic, and had commercial quarters in Constantinople just as they did in
the Levant and Egypt. Conversely, Manuel, in particular, intervened westwards
in ways that emperors had not attempted since Basil I, both diplomatically,
with marriage and other alliances (he was most influential in Hungary), and
militarily: although, unlike Basil, he never managed to establish his rule in
Italy, it is significant that he tried, with an invasion of formerly Byzantine
Puglia in 115556. Manuel wanted to be taken seriously in the west as a player,
and in part he was, thanks in particular to his money, in the swirl of ever-
changing alliances between pope, Sicilian king, Italian cities and German
Greater western familiarity with the Byzantines did not, however, lead to a
greater understanding between the two cultures, and this became a crucial
issue as time went on. Manuel may have tried to further it, but not many other
people did. It may have been too obvious that many Byzantines thought of
westerners simply as greedy barbarians (it was widely believed that westerners
ate carrion, as well as there being genuine religious differences which seemed
horrible to Byzantines, such as demanding the celibacy of priests and eating
unleavened bread at the Eucharist).23 It was certainly too obvious that the
Byzantines had little sympathy with the crusader states, which always enjoyed
a warm glow of religious frontline commitment in the minds of western
observers. Western political players were anyway becoming surer of their own
identity and cultural superiority, and had begun to close themselves off more
to alternative values and practices. The western view that Greeks were
ungrateful cowards, as well as over-clever theological logic-choppers, which
had been a clich since the Roman republic, and a subtext of some defensive
western rhetoric across the earlier middle ages, became much stronger in the
twelfth century. The tone of genuine impressedness at Constantinoples gran-
deur, wealth and sophistication, which is visible, partly against his will, in
Liutprand of Cremona in the 950s960s, is by now heard much less often in
western sources, except in the form of a semi-mythical city of wonders, like the
exotic images of Arab wealth which had long existed Byzantium, that is to
say, was becoming orientalised, in Edward Saids terms.24 And that Byzantiums
effective and wealthy fiscal system might have been a useful model for gener-
ally cash-poor western government is not heard at all.
This was the context of the period after 1180, when, after Manuels death
with only a child heir, the Byzantine state faced a new round of coups and
unstable, indeed incompetent, rulers. The fact that all the rivals were Komnenoi
by now did not help; they behaved at least as violently to each other as
any predecessors had. And they no longer appeared to westerners to have the
180 medieval europe

political solidity which Manuel had had when the Third Crusade came
through in 118990, the empires weaknesses were very apparent. As for the
Italian cities, already in 1171 Manuel had confiscated the property of the
Venetians; in 1182 Andronikos I actually massacred the Pisans and Genoese.
The Venetians benefited from 1182, but did not forget 1171; the other Italian
cities never forgave 1182; the turns of Byzantine politics with respect to each in
the next two decades alienated both sides. For almost the first time, the insta-
bility of central government also allowed provincial leaders to aim for separa-
tism: the Serbs in the north-west, the Armenians in the south-east, a Komnenos
in Cyprus, a local magnate in the eastern Aegean, and, most problematic of all
because closest to the capital, the revolt of Peter and Asen in 1186 which
resulted in the revival of an independent Bulgaria. This was, by any standards,
a lot of separatist revolts. One important result was that the capital was starved
of money, and the army diminished quickly as well. This meant that, when the
crusaders of the Fourth Crusade in 120203, in debt to the Venetians and thus
in need of money themselves, agreed to deviate from their path to put a
claimant on the imperial throne, Alexios IV which they did by storming the
city in 1203 Alexios could neither pay them what he promised nor resist
them. Constantinople had been stormed before; Alexios I had done so in 1081
for example, with notable violence and loss of life; 1203 was less serious than
that. But when the crusaders got tired of waiting (Alexios IV was anyway by
now dead in another coup) and stormed it again in 1204, that time it was very
serious. By now Constantinople was not looked at with any sort of impressed-
ness at all, but just as the over-rich capital of worthless and schismatic Greeks.
This made the events of 1204 fatal. The capitals treasures were systematically
looted and in large part taken to the west; and the empire was replaced by a
dozen small successor states, often heirs of the separatist revolts of the 1180s
and 1190s, with the addition of weak Latin rule in the centre.25
In a sense, this account decentres 1204 as the key event in Byzantine history;
it was only possible because of the previous disintegration of Manuels state,
and because the western powers and the Byzantines had, so to speak, fallen out
of love with each other. But it made these possibly temporary developments
final. Had the events of 120304 never occurred, it would be easy to imagine
that a second Alexios I could have reunified the empire again and re-established
its centrality as a European power which could have been more culturally inte-
grated with those of the rest of Europe, possibly through the mediation of the
Italian cities. The thirteenth century was, after all, a period in which vernacu-
lars were beginning to take off in several western regions, and Greek was no
harder for a French or Italian politician or intellectual to grasp than, say,
1204: the failure of alternatives 181

German; and the thirteenth century was also, as we saw in the last chapter, the
century in which an interest in innovative techniques of government became
much more developed in the west than in previous centuries. The Byzantine
model might have become effective again, and maybe even more effective than
it had been previously. But this did not happen; or, rather, when it did, with the
rise of the Ottomans, it happened in a way which westerners did not and, given
their cultural and religious assumptions, could not, value. We shall conclude
this chapter by looking at how that occurred.

* * *
The Latin empire of Constantinople was a failure, and it is surprising that it
lasted until 1261. But, as I said at the start of this chapter, there was never a
period after this that the revived Byzantine empire, now under a new dynasty,
the Palaiologoi, gained any sort of substantial territorial base. In the later thir-
teenth century and early fourteenth, it focused on extending its authority from
its north-western Anatolian power-base back into what is now Greece (Bulgaria
was beyond its powers), but it was rivalled by an expansionist Serbia, which
under Stephen Duan (133155) temporarily took control of the whole of
northern Greece, whereas the Byzantine state faced civil war in the 1340s, and
the Black Death did particular harm to Constantinople in 134748. The
Peloponnesos, for its part, was divided between small Greek and Latin princi-
palities; the Venetians, in the islands, co-ran the commercial system with the
Genoese. The Aegean world was thus simply a mix of fractious principalities,
none of them with any chance of winning out over the others. All that one can
say is that the Constantinople-based empire was the richest, with a strong city-
based culture which continued that of previous centuries and was still capable
of producing ambitious and expensive architecture, like the rebuilding and
decoration of the Chora monastery (Kariye Camii) by the senior administrator
and intellectual Theodore Metochites in 131521, which contains the most
impressive surviving mosaic- and fresco-work in the whole of Istanbul, outside
Hagia Sophia itself.26
What changed this was an unexpected development. This was the break-up
of the Anatolian Seljuq state in the 1270s, wrecked once again by Mongol
conquest, for this released the random energies of a set of small Muslim Turkish
lordships, who could look to the rich Aegean lands of the Greeks as much as
they fought their rivals. One of these, that of the Osmanl (Ottoman) family,
originally from the tiny town of St outside Nicaea, took Nicaea and Bursa
in 132631. From this still-small base they expanded with dramatic effective-
ness. In 1354 they moved into Thrace, and by the late 1360s they reached the
182 medieval europe

Black Sea, cutting Constantinople off except by ship. From then on, they occu-
pied nearly the whole of the Balkans in twenty-five years, slowing only in 1389,
when the Serbs held the Ottomans to a draw on the Kosovo field, celebrated
ever after in song. (The Serbs had to recognise Ottoman hegemony not long
after, all the same, and in 1439 the Ottomans took them over totally.) On the
mainland, only Albania and southern Greece remained in the hands of Latin
and Greek powers; Sultan Beyazit I (13891402) was already besieging
Constantinople. The Byzantines were temporarily saved by the latest central
Asian conqueror, Timur, who destroyed Beyazits army at Ankara in 1402, but
by now Byzantium was reduced to hardly more than a single city, plus a frag-
ment of the Peloponnesos around Mistras. Renewed Ottoman expansion in the
1430s picked off all the major Latin and Greek remnants by 1461 except the
Venetian islands, with Constantinople itself going to a neatly executed siege by
Mehmet II (145181) in 1453.27
The Ottoman empire in the Balkans was the most innovative political
development of the later fifteenth century in the whole of Europe (its territory
stretched ever further into Asia too), and the state which ran it was by 1500 the
most coherent political and fiscal structure of the continent. If I do not discuss
it in detail, it is only because the evidence for its coherence begins to be avail-
able only in the last years of the century, and to be substantial only after 1500,
too late for this book. But the major question it poses needs at least some
discussion: that is to say, how did it happen? How did the Ottomans manage to
achieve, from a minuscule initial power-base, something which emperors of
Constantinople and aggressive Serbian kings could not manage, the stable
reunification of the old Byzantine imperial lands, and then well beyond? They
certainly built up an effective army, which seems to have been paid from nearly
the start by a land tax, the standard system in the Islamic and Byzantine tradi-
tions. By the late fifteenth century, if not earlier, this army was mostly paid
through the devolution of blocks of local tax revenues to soldiers who collected
them directly, called timars; these too had antecedents in both the Islamic
world (the iqta) and the Byzantine world (the pronoia which was a more
important feature of the late Byzantine state than it had been before). Different
historians stress these different origins, but we can at least see considerable
linkage between Byzantine and Ottoman fiscal patterns when there is docu-
mentation (as in northern Greece) for the succession of political rgimes.28
Essentially, the political practices which the Ottomans inherited from the
Arab-Turkish past in particular the near-universal assumption that a paid
standing army, with its own career structure, was a standard part of any polit-
ical system made it necessary for them to adopt and adapt whatever fiscal
1204: the failure of alternatives 183

structures they found when they conquered, which meant, above all, those of
the Byzantines. They soon turned this into a centralised system, adding new
elements as well. They built on it by rapidly incorporating regional lites into
their system, and stabilising the latters local authority by doing so. Their power
was not immune to fragmentation, especially in the troubled years after 1402;
but it could be, and was, re-established effectively as well, indeed so effectively
that the Ottoman state by the sixteenth century became the best-organised, not
only in the whole of contemporary Europe, but in the whole of Islamic history
up to the nineteenth. That this solid structure first developed in lands which
had once been Byzantine was by no means chance, and Mehmet recognised his
Byzantine inheritance, which of course he saw himself as transcending, when
he repopulated Constantinople/Istanbul, re-established as his new capital,
with so much care.29 Western European conquerors of ex-Byzantine, and
indeed ex-Arab, lands, had seldom been so effective. For example, even
though the Norman kingdom of Sicily owed much to Byzantine and Arab
example, the Byzantine land tax in Puglia was quickly privatised; and, although
taxation survived longer in Sicily, for it was exacted from Muslims there, it too
mostly went to private lords, and declined with the Muslim community itself
across the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries30 the thirteenth-century
re-establishment of taxation there was on different bases, and was less well
organised. But the Ottomans recognised the importance of these structures,
and were better able to make use of them. They were well placed to be the heirs
of the Byzantines, and the Romans, in a new Muslim world. But they were
much more separated from the other European powers than the Byzantines
had ever been or ever could have been; they were an object of hatred and fear
(as well as orientalising fascination), not of admiration or emulation, and that
tension lasted as long as the Ottomans did themselves.
Actually, the polity which claimed to be the heir of Byzantium with most
insistence was Muscovy, the principality of Moscow. After the Mongols
conquered Rus in 123740, they established a loose suzerainty, plus tribute-
taking, from the various Russian principalities, under one of the Mongol
successor states, the Golden Horde. Kiev, the old focus of Russian power, lost
any centrality, and the new political centre was by now stably in and around
Vladimir in the far north-east. In the interminable carousel of disputing
between the Ryurikid princes, which continued after 1240 as much as before,
the rulers of Moscow, up to then a tiny town in the territory of Vladimir,
emerged as the most influential by the 1320s, largely thanks to the choices of
the Mongol khan; the metropolitan bishop of Rus was most often based there
from then onwards too. When, from the 1420s, the power of the Horde began
184 medieval europe

definitively to fade, the grand prince in Moscow became the dominant ruler of
the Russian lands; by 1520, with the submission of Ryazan, Ivan III (1462
1505) and his successor Vasiliy III had taken over every other independent
Russian principality.31
Until now, Russian metropolitans had always been consecrated in
Constantinople, and were often chosen directly by the patriarch there. From
1448, with the Byzantine empire on its last legs, that ceased. But the ideological
attachment of the Russian church to the Byzantine tradition remained tight, and
so did that of the Ryurikids; Ivan IIIs wife Sophia, for example, was a Palaiologan.
By the sixteenth century, the Russian response to the fall of Constantinople was
that Moscow had become its successor. Third Rome imagery developed
steadily thereafter, and in 1547 Ivan IV was crowned as tsar. This ideological
tradition (expressed architecturally, as well, in the impressive Byzantine-inspired
churches of medieval and early modern Russia) was the only Byzantine element
that persisted in Moscows lands, however. The fiscal structure of Muscovy long
remained a fairly simple one, of tribute-taking from towns and from a still-
largely independent peasantry; this independence was lessening by now, in the
face of increased church and aristocratic landowning, but the process was not
yet fast. As Muscovy grew larger, and its political infrastructure had to develop,
the models it chose in practice were much more similar to those of the Mongols.32
This is hardly surprising, for Muscovys centre was even further from the rest of
Europe, including Byzantium, than Kiev-ruled Rus had been: it was separated
from the south not only by the steppe corridor, which remained a hostile
marcher land until well into the seventeenth century, but also by the expanded
grand duchy of Lithuania, now solidly associated with Poland (see below,
Chapter 11), which had moved fast when the Horde began initially to lose its
grip, and established long-lasting control over Kiev itself by the 1360s. Between
an Ottoman empire which ruled the old Byzantine lands from the Byzantine
capital in a largely Byzantine way, and a Muscovy which laid claim to a Byzantine
succession with an insistence which no sultan would have wanted to match, but
which had a wholly unrelated infrastructure and social practice, it is easy to put
more weight on the continuities between Byzantium and the Ottomans. But it
was all the same significant that the Muscovite church put so much emphasis on
its Roman/Byzantine past and orthodox identity, and this would remain impor-
tant in the future.

* * *
The Byzantine empire was a crucial part of European history until its eclipse
in the years leading up to 1204, and, but for the Fourth Crusade, might have
1204: the failure of alternatives 185

been again. No serious account of the middle ages can leave it out. It is curious
that so many do; probably this is because they tend to give so much weight to
the period from the twelfth century onwards, when Byzantium, although a
major player until 1180, was slipping out of the vision of western writers and
then vanished as an effective force. The European community of states after
that was a very Latin one indeed, apart from the Balkans and the Russian lands,
which few outside Hungary and Poland by now (and as yet) paid much atten-
tion to. But anyway, until then, the Byzantine empire was the richest and most
complex European power, and was widely recognised as such at least into the
eleventh century. Choniates, in his bitterness after 1204, claims, apart from the
graphic insults which one would expect (they always hated us, we were their
prey, etc.), that there was actually nothing in common between west and east at
all: between us and them [the Latins] the greatest gulf of disagreement has
been fixed, and we are separated in purpose and diametrically opposed.33 His
bitterness is understandable, but we do not have to follow him here.
chapter ten

Defining society: gender and

community in late medieval Europe

When we get into the later middle ages, the information we have about
Europeans, particularly western Europeans, increases exponentially. Court
records survive from Italian cities in their hundreds of thousands, and finan-
cial records from the English government almost to the same extent.
Furthermore, the increasing range of lay literacy means that we have writings
by ever-wider groups of people, and from ever further down the social scale
sometimes artisans, very occasionally peasants. These texts are increasingly
not in Latin, and are thus closer to, although not the same as, the ordinary
speech of the laity. The result of all this is that it becomes easier to get a sense
of some of the cultural values and practices of the non-lite majority, and to
know more about the non-religious values of lites as well. Let us therefore
look at how cultural practices actually worked in this period, focusing on
gender difference, with particular regard to women, and community solidarity:
mostly after 1300, but looking back where possible too. This will be the ines-
capable underpinning, the cultural base if you like, for the analyses of political
superstructures and discourses, and economic change, which will follow in the
next two chapters. I will begin with two examples of female religious innova-
tion and reactions to it, which will help to illuminate some of the wider presup-
positions of the period as well, above all concerning female gender roles. That
in itself will take us into the world of the values of the laity, and we will then
look at other aspects of these, using, among other sources, contemporary
imaginative literature. Here we will concentrate on the collective identities, of,
in turn, aristocrats, townspeople and peasants, and how they were increasingly
clearly defined including the dark side of such definition, the stigmatisation
of outsiders.
So let us start with the future saint Catherine of Siena, who died in 1380 at
the age of thirty-three, whose success and whose strangeness show what possi-
bilities there were for a certain sort of female protagonism in her time. She was

Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 187

from a prosperous artisan family, of dyers, who were part of Sienas medium
lite, and included city leaders in the 1360s; she was said by her biographer to
be her mothers twenty-third child, but was one of only five or so to survive
into adulthood. She refused food early, and by 1370 was eating virtually
nothing; it is entirely likely that her decision in 1380 to stop drinking water for
a month as well contributed to her death not long after. Caroline Bynum has
convincingly shown how this decision by Catherine and its associated phys-
ical signs, like sleeplessness, plus more extreme food choices like drinking pus
cannot simply be seen through the prism of anorexia, but also needs to be
understood inside the complex relationship to food, to the Eucharist and to
Christs blood which was a characteristic feature of female spirituals. Catherine,
who also refused marriage and withdrew into a single room for some years,
certainly saw her vocation as overwhelmingly spiritual and visionary. This was
recognised early, and she had Dominican advisors in the 1360s (the Dominican
church of Siena towers over the section of the city where she lived); by 1374 she
had become formally attached to the order, had come to the attention of the
pope, and was assigned a senior Dominican as a confessor, who later wrote her
longest biography. All major female spiritual figures had a male confessor, who
very often is our only source for their activities, normalising their lives in a
male narrative framework. We get rather more of a sense of Catherines own
personality, however, for she authored over 380 surviving letters and a theo-
logical work all in Italian; if she had any Latin it was sketchy and so emerges
as a figure with her own down-to-earth metaphorical style (for example,
Christs divine nature is the wine in the opened wine barrel on which one gets
drunk; his double divine and human nature is like a grafted tree). She was
active in Tuscan and papal politics, and began to travel extensively; she was
taken seriously as a political and moral force, urging Pope Gregory XI, then
based in Avignon (see Chapter 11), to return to Rome, which he did in 1377. In
Siena she was taken very seriously indeed, although she by no means always
argued for the interests of the current Senese government; she also developed
an entourage of influential male Senesi, whom she called her famiglia (she was
their mamma her family-based political imagery extended to addressing
popes as babbo, daddy). Catherine was often viewed with suspicion, as were
other female spirituals, whose prominence outside marriage or the monastery
often seemed problematic, as we shall see. She was tested by panels of ecclesi-
astics more than once. Like other female religious actors, she did not make it to
sainthood early, and was only canonised in 1461, by a Senese pope. All the
same, in the last six years of her life, this artisans daughter, with no Latin, the
standard political language, was a significant political figure in Siena and
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Florence, Rome and Avignon. Her extreme ascetic acts, plus a personal
charisma which is very clear in her letters, were enough for that.1
My second example is Margery Kempe (d. after 1439), daughter, wife and
mother of merchants of the port of (Kings) Lynn in Norfolk. Her father, many
times mayor of Lynn and an MP, was particularly successful, and Margery was
seldom poor, except when she gave away her money. Almost everything we
know about her comes from the autobiographical book that she dictated in the
1430s, when she was in her sixties. This mediated writing does not show she
was illiterate in the sense of being unable to read (Catherine of Siena also
dictated, until she miraculously learned to write in 1377, as did many male
chroniclers); Margerys book is ambiguous as to whether she could read, but a
rich merchants child, even female, is likely to have had some training in it by
now, and she was certainly well acquainted with spiritual religious texts. The
text depicts her this creature as she calls herself throughout as developing
a highly personal style of ecstatic Christianity, not based on asceticism (except
chastity, which she found hard) but on public weeping and crying out, espe-
cially in religious contexts, on self-humiliation, and on intense visions of
Christ, with whom she went through a visionary marriage when on pilgrimage
in Rome. She had a more-or-less normal marriage for a long time, despite a
moment of mental breakdown, including bearing fourteen children, but visions
persuaded her in the 1410s to ask her long-suffering husband for a chaste
marriage and permission to go on pilgrimage, which he agreed to as long as she
paid his debts. Dressed in virginal white, she went to Jerusalem, Rome and
Santiago de Compostela. These were the classic pilgrimages for anyone who
could afford it, but it was very unusual to do all three; and a lone woman on
such long journeys, even though travelling with companions as she always did,
was distinctly uncommon. Late in life, she also added religious shrines in the
Baltic (she had a German daughter-in-law who, rather unwillingly, took her to
Gdask). More visibly to her social world, she also travelled around England,
creating a certain degree of notoriety for herself, given her garments and her
crying and her constant discussions about religion with everyone she met. In
1417, on her return from abroad, she ran into trouble, for that was a time of
panic about heretical Lollards (see Chapter 12), and several times she was
hauled in to face charges in front of bishops and town officials (the mayor of
Leicester said thou art come hither to lure away our wives from us, one of the
many signs of discomfort which Margery generated, according to her text).
Actually, however, bishops were relatively sympathetic to her, as she could
respond to all interrogation in a totally orthodox manner, and she got certifi-
cates of orthodoxy from both English archbishops; she could also get out of
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 189

accusations that she was preaching a potentially heretical act by saying that
she simply talked to people. Margery Kempe was doubtless, on the basis of her
book at least, a totally infuriating person, but she managed to create a Margery-
sized space for herself and defend it against people of every social level. Modern
historians have sometimes hypothesised that she sought sainthood with her
book; it does not really seem so to me; but she certainly saw her personal close-
ness to Christ as highly special, and it is clear that many others were prepared
to go along with that too.2
I will come back to the gendered aspects of Catherines and Margerys activ-
ities in a moment; let us start by simply looking at them as members of the laity.
These two were obviously wildly atypical figures in their religious commit-
ment, and also atypical in that they both, despite their considerable differences,
came from the interior-minded, spiritual wing of Christianity (it is often called
mysticism, but the term is very vague). What is important for us, however, is
not that most ordinary people did not behave like this, but rather that they
tolerated, and often admired, these forms of action. Lay religious devotion was
normally a matter of regular weekly and yearly rituals, in churches or processing
between them, and its outward forms were essentially run by priests, who were
also expected to preach to the laity and to confess them annually.3 The idea that
the Christian religion should be mediated by the clergy was fundamental, and
much of the anti-heresy activity of the thirteenth century had been aimed at
people who did not accept that, as we saw in Chapter 8. So was it later; Margery
Kempe was explicitly accused of heresy, and Catherine skirted its edges; they
got away with it, and gained protection from the powerful, because their
acceptance of the church hierarchy (even if not their respect for its individual
members) was, or appeared to be, complete. We will come back to late medi-
eval versions of heresy in the last chapter of this book, for they can be seen best
in the framework of wider problems of authority and dissent in this period.
Here, however, the important point is that Margery and Catherine were not
ultimately seen as heretical, but they were nonetheless engaged in innovative
ways of acting morally in the world; and religious authorities such as bishops
and indeed popes were happy with that. Clearly, then, it is not the case that all
lay religious protagonism was seen as wrong by the church, and it never was; it
had to be scrutinised before it was accepted, but, once that happened, senior
clerics rather welcomed the extra access to the divine which lay commitment
could provide. Gregory XI indeed sought Catherine out in part because his
previous spiritual interlocutor, Birgitta of Sweden (a similar figure, but aristo-
cratic, rather than of an artisan background, so in a way less exceptional), had
recently died. This had already been the case with the impact Francis of Assisi
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had on Innocent III, and the beguines in Flanders and northern France some-
times gained similar respect. But there does seem to have been more lay spir-
itual activism, and more acceptance of it, in the later middle ages; a further
instance was the influential (and well-studied) Modern Devotion movement in
the fifteenth-century Low Countries.4
How was that acceptance achieved, and what were the obstacles to it? It is
not easy to tell, for our narratives all know that acceptance would come in the
end, and how it was arrived at is dominated by clich. Some patterns are clear,
all the same. It is not chance, for a start, that both my examples are of urban-
based religiosity; there was more of a social space for self-fashioning in towns
(it was one of the reasons why people emigrated to them, not least women, who
could, by working for pay, live independently, longer than they could manage
in the countryside).5 Urban communities also often valued having a recluse or
other ascetic figure in the town, as a sign that the town was special. Sibylla of
Marsal was an earlier instance, a beguine of exceptional religious commitment
in a small town in Lorraine, who fasted and had visions and in 1240 began to
attract pilgrims to Marsal; the inhabitants had no problems with this at all, and
nor did the bishop of Metz, who had come in person to investigate, once he
encountered the demon whom Sibylla was fighting. Only more detailed scru-
tiny revealed, apparently by chance, that Sibylla was faking it, to the extent that
she had made her own demon suit and dressed up in it. Had she not been so
successful, she might never have been checked on, and Marsal would have
continued to benefit.6 This makes the initial excitement of the Senesi about
Catherines sanctity rather less surprising.
Conversely, it is equally clear that the suspicion of lay spiritual athletes
which also existed in this period, as Catherine and Margery both found, was
highly gendered. Catherine managed to establish a considerable degree of
international respect, as we have seen, but a more common reaction to female
spirituality, taken as a whole, was negative, and became still more negative as
time went on. This was in large part because women were liminal to the male
religious world: they were thought to be spiritually weaker, more prone to
demonic possession, which resembled divine spirituality so greatly, and more
prone to have a chaotic effect on the male order which circumscribed them.
Another, famous, example was Joan of Arc, the peasant girl whose access to
saintly voices led Charles VII of France to use her to inspire his armies against
the English invaders in 142930 and whom the English burned for heresy in
1431: the whole argument of her show trial hung on whether her voices were
divine or diabolical because they were not signed off by the church, that is
as well as on the legitimacy of a woman cross-dressing as a soldier. This sort of
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 191

worry would strengthen further after the mid-fifteenth century, when some
female visionaries began to be assimilated to a newly important category of the
spiritually dangerous, witches; Joan was in fact one of the first to be accused of
this, as a minor part of the charges against her.7 But spiritual worries of this
kind were spin-offs of patriarchal power relations of a less religious type as
well: these were women whose actions were not, as it was believed they should
be, mediated or controlled by fathers or husbands, or even, often, their confes-
sors; and they were claiming a public role which many thought they were not
entitled to. We need to look at more widely at these power relations, in partic-
ular as they concerned women.
It is not news that women were constrained by male power, in this as in
every period, but it is worth making it clear all the same. Dante refers in his
Monarchy to a proverbial curse, may you have an equal in your house; house-
holds were regarded as hierarchical by definition. In 139294 an anonymous
Parisian bourgeois wrote an advice manual for his young wife which takes for
granted that it was his responsibility to direct her every action, however unrea-
sonable his demands, with much citation of improving stories from medieval
literature of hyper-dutiful and abused wives such as Patient Griselda, who
humbly obeyed the intentionally humiliating instructions of her husband
(more attractive and more useful is the second part of the book, which contains
gardening advice and recipes). Women were weaker, inferior, more lecherous,
more prone to evil; they needed controlling, if necessary by force, and their
reputation was easily at risk and, it is important to add, these were assump-
tions held by women as much as men.8 Rape was common and was rarely
punished; the writer of an early etiquette guide to courtly behaviour, Andreas
Capellanus in the 1180s, sees it as a standard and amusing usage of aristocrats
when they meet peasant women. And so on. These were widely held norms,
against which every literary account of a bold female actor in, for example,
Giovanni Boccaccios Decameron of c. 1350 needs to be understood (Boccaccio
included Griselda among his stories as well, with little irony).9
Constraints on women were also in part enforced by law, as in legislation on
dowries, which limited the property any married woman could inherit or
control directly. Once again urban environments made other female protago-
nism, particularly in gendered economic activities such as weaving and
brewing, less unusual and we should also not forget that, even in the country-
side, women of the peasant majority worked all their lives as part of the family
collective, and were often responsible for marketing goods. Nonetheless, the
only secular women who had any long-term chance of acting independently
were widows; the economic rise of the Fugger family as rich cloth merchants in
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fifteenth-century Augsburg was quite as much the work of widowed women as

of men, for example. The one thing which women did tend to have under their
direct control was household management and the household economy even
the Parisian bourgeois assumed that; this is indeed the context for the role
Anna Dalassene had in managing Byzantine imperial finances in the 1080s for
her son Alexios I, as we saw in the last chapter, in what was in effect a family
takeover of the Byzantine state apparatus. Much wider economic activity
tended to derive from that household role elsewhere too: weaving, for example,
was gendered as a female trade because it was always done by women in a
family context, and indeed men often took over larger-scale, more public,
weaving.10 Expertise was gendered as well: women always controlled child-
birth, and much practical medical knowledge as well, but as soon as medicine
became professionalised (this was in most places a late medieval tendency) its
career structure became male. Patriarchal control was never complete; personal
relationships with acquiescent husbands (like Margery Kempes), as well as
economic necessity, gave a practical space for many women to operate in.
Indeed, the Reformation, when it came in the sixteenth century, often regarded
the practical autonomy of many wives as something to combat by ever-tighter
regulation.11 But the control was still there, usable if anyone wanted it.
It is not surprising that when historians want to study female protagonism,
they very often find themselves studying queens and senior aristocratic
women, who could exercise considerable power, either by inheritance (in the
absence of brothers) or, most commonly, as regents for children after their
husbands deaths; women had these roles in non-lite families as well, but aris-
tocracies are far better-documented. That power was real, but it too was
circumscribed. Female rulers tended to find a rather more hostile and critical
political environment, or else bolstered up their authority by marriage, or
indeed both, from Urraca of Castile (110926), through Joan and Margaret,
successive countesses of Flanders (120678) and Joanna I of Naples (134382),
to Margaret I of Denmark (13751412) and Isabella I of Castile (14741504),
the last two of whom were the most successful of this set. Margaret of Denmark,
even though she inherited her kingdom as her fathers heir, in fact almost
always ruled through young males, her son and then a handpicked nephew,
like queens-regent did elsewhere. It is true that Margaret is also notable, not
only for overcoming opposition almost completely, but also for actually
extending her power-base: it was during the only period in which she ruled on
her own, 138789, that she unified the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway
and Sweden, by force in the Swedish case.12 There were tough matriarchs else-
where, too on the Welsh Marches, for example; and Isabella of France, wife of
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 193

Edward II of England, was even capable of overthrowing her husband, with the
help of her lover Roger Mortimer, in 1327.13 All the same, other female rulers
found that the fragility of all political authority particularly applied to them.
And so did the policing of behaviours. With the development of courtly love
and Arthurian-inspired rules of etiquette (see below), a kings or lords wife
could easily find herself surrounded by young knightly admirers, but woe
betide any lady who was thought to have fallen for that; even royal figures
could be brought down by accusations of illicit sex with such admirers, from
the daughters-in-law of Philip IV of France in 1314 to Anne Boleyn in England
in 1536. The survival of the Arthurian Guinevere and Isolde in the face of such
accusations was simply the fiction of romances.
There was thus no secure public space for women, unless nunneries count
as that (but female monasteries, too, were often more enclosed, and often
poorer, than those of men).14 Female secular power was obtained, when it was
obtained at all, only in the context of positions in family life cycles. Every time
power was exercised by collectivities, it also moved away from being available
to women; Italian city communal government was a male space, for example,
so were universities, and so were most craft guilds (although some guilds had
female members, particularly widows, and Cologne and Paris, in particular,
had specifically female weaving and spinning guilds and wider female guild
membership).15 Gender analysis thus tends to be about the negotiation (by
men as well as by women) of expectations, assumptions, boundaries, body-
based categories, and it is logical that it should be. It is by such negotiation, too,
to come back to Catherine and Margery and also Joan of Arc, that exceptional
women could play with gender expectations, including that of female frailty, to
create spiritual spaces for themselves which could sometimes have political
implications. But this was restricted to the exceptional (and the exceptionally
pious), and it, too, was hedged around with constraint and risk.
Did anything change in this across the middle ages as a whole? There is
disagreement. Some have argued that the early middle ages gave more space to
female property-holding and power, whereas from roughly 1100 onwards the
growing patrilinearity of aristocratic family structures in the west, and the
exclusion of daughters from inheritance if there were sons, cut them out from
political protagonism as well, constraining them inside family and marriage
patterns made by men.16 It is certainly true that male-line families are rather
more visible in the second half of the middle ages (though they existed before
too); it is also true that the marriage-portions women had access to in the later
middle ages were, in general, smaller than those of earlier periods, and that
women in some cases lost other rights of inheritance (but here the issue is also
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how much control they had ever had over their land, which was very vari-
able).17 The transactional power of political women was however always fragile:
as we saw earlier in this book, the queens-regent of the Merovingian period or
pre-1100 Byzantium were powerful, but faced the same sorts of constraints and
criticisms as those of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries; Carolingian queens
faced accusations of adultery just as the daughters-in-law of Philip IV did, and
for similar reasons. The growth of male-line lineage actually increased the
number of queens- and countesses-regent for male children, who were all the
more essential because there was less choice as to who could be a legitimate
heir. I would rather see women as making the best of varying but always limited
opportunities for personal agency, with success rates which, although low, were
not vanishing in any period, and no major shift around 1100 in this respect.
What seems to me to be different about the late middle ages, however, is
above all the increase in ambiguities. Patrilinearity excluded women from
inheritance, but gave them more authority as widow-mothers. University
education and the professionalisation of knowledge excluded women, but a
steady widening of lay literacy gave more of them access to books (there were
always female authors, and mothers notably St Anne and the Virgin Mary
are regularly depicted in late medieval images teaching their children to read18).
Towns excluded women from urban government and usually from guild
protection, and often cut them out of artisanal activities they had dominated
before, but gave them opportunities for employment and, sometimes, pros-
perity which they could not have gained elsewhere. The sharpening of the hier-
archy of the church gave more power to celibate men, but lay piety gave a new,
even if restricted, space to female religious sensibility. The basic reason for all
this is that Europe was now more economically complex, as we have seen; with
that complexity came ambiguities of all kinds. And it is in societies where
complexity and ambiguity give space for pragmatic solutions that women have
in general found it most possible to negotiate space for their own protagonism.
Societies with sharper lines, by contrast, like those of the Reformation, and,
later, the French Revolution, have often made that negotiation harder, between
an initial period of innovation and a later period in which the complexities
which are also there are allowed fuller play again.
Hence also the fact that Christine de Pizan (d. c. 1430) became an intellec-
tual figure, after her husband died young in 1390 and she had to raise her
family on her own in Paris, with all the difficulties in securing control over her
husbands property which widows often faced. She made ends meet thereafter,
very unusually, by writing poetry and prose for money. She would hardly have
managed this if she had not been the daughter of the royal astrologer to Charles
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 195

V of France and widow of a well-known royal notary, so was well connected,

even if in financial trouble. But she would certainly not have managed it had
she not been highly educated, including in Latin and Italian, her parents
language, more than almost anyone so far mentioned in this chapter, which is
significant in itself (she had access to the royal library too, and was influenced
by Ovid, Boethius, Boccaccio and Aquinas). She was also a remarkably gifted
poet. In 140405 she wrote a long tract against male hostility to women, The
book of the city of ladies, in which she is called on to build the city by Reason,
Rectitude and Justice, who all agree with her that women have been maligned
by the lies of men, and that the catalogue of virtuous women in the past (a long
list, including Griselda again) shows that women are in reality kind and loyal,
whereas men are lustful and violent. This text is interesting for its independ-
ence of thought and evident anger, of a type which modern commentators can
identify with (and they have); but it has also to be said that, although Christine
clearly prefers women to men in moral terms, and thinks that they are fully as
intelligent, she accepts the normative medieval female roles outlined above in
other respects almost completely: men do naturally rule; women should be
modest, and simply endure wicked and violent husbands. She was a woman of
her time, then, as were (in very different ways) her partial contemporaries
Catherine of Siena and Margery Kempe. But she is an intellectually stimulating
one to finish with here; and she well shows the possibilities that a virtually self-
guided education could produce, towards the end of our period.19

* * *
I have here cited writers in the vernacular almost exclusively, which is itself, as
we have been seeing, a sign of the steady extension of lay literacy. They were of
course not the only writers in the later middle ages in most of the west, Latin
remained the standard international, administrative and intellectual language
throughout the medieval centuries, and often beyond but such writers often
reflect the cultural attitudes of wider sections of the laity. (It was easier in
Byzantium, where everyone still spoke Greek, although, conversely, there were
few fully vernacular texts there, for the literary language was by now usually
quite far from the spoken one.) These attitudes need to be followed further, if
we want to understand how aristocratic, urban and peasant communities
defined themselves in the later middle ages; this will be the focus of the rest of
the chapter, with vernacular literary representations set against other elements
of the sociocultural practices of each in turn.
The first thing to keep in mind is that a French literary culture was usually
dominant in this period in western Europe. The twelfth-century French epic
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poems about Charlemagne, particularly the Song of Roland, were widely trans-
lated and adapted, into Old Norse, German, Spanish, English, as well as, and
most influentially of all, Latin prose, as the so-called Pseudo-Turpin chronicle.20
The late-twelfth- and thirteenth-century French romance tradition, largely
associated with stories about the court of King Arthur in verse and prose,
spread even further across Latin Europe, including back to Wales, where the
first Arthurian material came from. Much literary creation in German consisted
of adaptations of them in the thirteenth century, and, later, English authors
from Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400) to Thomas Malory (d. 1471) did the same: in
these countries, a dialogue between French and native literary styles continued
for a long time.21 In Italy too, although romance itself only came in much later,
French initially had a similar status; the works of Brunetto Latini (d. 1294)
were largely in French, and so in 1298 was the first version of Marco Polos
Milione, the account of his travels to China. It was not until Dante Alighieri
(d. 1321) made the choice to write the highly literary Divine comedy in Italian
that the vernacular really took off there. Dantes complexity fascinated Italians
from the start, in much the same way that James Joyce did for modernists in the
1920s and 1930s, and sections of the Comedy circulated even while he was
finishing it in the 1310s, with commentators following on fast as well; but his
impact outside Italy was for some time relatively restricted, except in Spain.22
Of Italian texts, Boccaccios Decameron had the greatest early effect beyond the
Alps, thanks to multilingual figures like Chaucer and Christine de Pizan (they
knew Dante too, but used him less).
The problem about vernaculars was of course translation; French was
widely spoken (in England the whole aristocracy spoke it for a long time), but
other languages were not, so their literary achievements were less known. This
was even more the case for Byzantine romance literature, which was unknown
west of the Adriatic; although it predates the first Arthurian romances, it did
not influence them (it is also timeless in a way which much western secular
writing is not; its loving couples are separated by shipwreck and capture by
pirates, then brought back together by coincidence social context, except
gender of course, is cut out of these texts almost deliberately). Conversely,
French romance, in particular, provided a template for the courtly and chiv-
alric behaviour of the aristocracy of over half of Europe, with rulers and their
courtiers on occasion dressing up as Arthurian figures and the like, from the
late twelfth into the sixteenth century; Edward III of Englands Order of the
Garter of 1348, for example, played off Arthurian imagery very explicitly.23
This contributed substantially to the self-consciousness of the aristocratic
strata of the period.
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 197

Chivalry had other origins than literature. Jousting and the tournament
developed out of military training; the bond between a lord and his knights
had been strong since the early middle ages, and all lords wished to keep it that
way with as much ritual and feasting as possible, as we have seen; the religious
imagery of the Grail quest and other Arthurian themes had at its roots the
assumption, which military aristocrats had had since the Merovingian period,
that they were far more moral than everyone else. French romance was initially
successful simply because it represented that aristocratic world in emblematic
terms, adding in the finamors (courtly love) rhetoric of the south French trou-
badour tradition, and creating attractive plotlines around the trials of indi-
vidual knights, such as Lancelot, loyal to his lord Arthur but tragically in love
with Arthurs wife Guinevere. As we saw earlier, eroticised power games were
very risky if they went too far in real life, but as a literary image they were very
strong indeed. The rituals of knighthood steadily gained coherence, defining
and idealising as they did so the order of those who fight, one of the three
orders or estates of society (together with those who pray and those who
work), which were rapidly gaining currency as a classification from the end of
the twelfth century onwards. As they did so, an etiquette for knights at court
was ready-made for them, in the works of Chrtien de Troyes, Marie de France,
and, in the thirteenth century, the authors of the huge Arthurian prose cycle
which Malory would later translate and adapt. This chivalric etiquette gained
in elaboration across the rest of the middle ages. The dialectic between litera-
ture and self-image was here unusually tight. Of course aristocrats were usually
far from chivalric in practice, and they mistreated peasants and townspeople
during both war and peace with at least as much commitment as they had done
in earlier centuries, but the ideal of the honourable wandering knight, being
constantly tested, and fortified by love and religion, had a long future.24
Aristocracies also developed a new degree of definition in this period.
Being a member of the ruling lite was taken for granted by its members in the
early middle ages, and not theorised; there was indeed no word before 1200 or
so which accurately translates the words aristocrat or lite, which are our
words, not theirs. Nobilis, which came closest, was a word with many mean-
ings, both narrow and wide. lite membership was in practice negotiated, for it
was based on several different elements, wealth, birth, office, political skills,
training, royal favour, not all of which every potential aristocrat had. By 1500,
however, at least in the Europe of kingdoms (communal Italy was, for a long
time, more flexible), you were either a noble or you were not. The upper aris-
tocracy was thus bounded, even if differently in different countries. The right
ancestors by now made one a noble almost automatically, and the policing of
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heredity became ever more visible. One could rarely become noble by marrying
up, even if a few women managed it, like Alice Chaucer (d. 1475), grand-
daughter of the poet, who married a knight and then two earls, and died
duchess of Suffolk. But kings and other rulers by the fourteenth century could
create aristocrats as well, ennobling them, after which, at least in theory, they
were the equals of older families. Sometimes (in Germany in particular), this
aristocracy defined itself as a nobility (Adel) against cities and their rich lites;
elsewhere, participation in the upper secular house in parliaments and their
equivalents was a key element. As the code of chivalry became ever more
explicit as a self-image for such nobles, rulers could play with that too, with
new orders of noble knighthood, the Garter in England or the Golden Fleece
(1430) in Burgundy. This still often left a wide knightly and quasi-knightly
stratum outside the narrower nobility, such as the English gentry or the urban
caballeros villanos of Castile. Their lite status was certainly real they too
could have chivalric aspirations, for instance but it remained more informal,
and sometimes more transactional, as that of all lites had been in the early
middle ages (the gentry were for example sometimes called nobiles in texts,
without being nobles in a strict sense). All the same, everywhere in Europe
the centuries after 1200 brought both clarity and restriction for the aspirant
The concept of urban identity was becoming equally elaborate too, and is
increasingly well documented in this period. By 1300, towns had some type of
self-government everywhere, in the wholly autonomous city-states of north-
central Italy, the imperial cities with their special status in Germany, the towns
of Flanders which could defy their ruling count with regularity, and then in
every possible form, whether defined or de facto, everywhere else. They
expressed their identity publicly, and indeed the latest medieval centuries are
the first period in which urban public ritual begins to be really clear in our
texts in most of the west. Such ritual was at its base religious in almost every
case, and processions on major religious feast days were standard everywhere
(not only in towns, indeed), but they acted in many urban centres as the basis
for remarkable elaboration. There were sometimes dozens of them every year
in large cities. The processional map was very complex and long-standing in
places like Rome and Milan, and of course Constantinople, where it went back
to the early middle ages; but Florence, Venice, Bruges, Ghent and other Italian
and Flemish cities developed similar patterns in later centuries. From 1317,
when it was properly established as a universal church feast in the west, Corpus
Christi in June became a particularly significant focus for public events: in
England, major late medieval towns like York, Chester, Wakefield and Coventry
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 199

established cycles of mystery plays for performance at Corpus Christi, as did

some south-west German towns such as Knzelsau and Freiburg, and there
was a playwriting competition on that day in Lille in northern France too.
Public events with a more secular element matched them, such as the archery
and poetic competitions of the fifteenth-century Low Countries, or the bull-
fighting and jousting in Rome on the first Sunday of Lent, regulated in some
detail in its communal statutes of 1360. But none of these were events with a
purely religious meaning anyway. Rituals are polyvalent, for a start: they regu-
larly take on different meanings for participants from those intended by organ-
isers, often several different meanings at once. One general meaning of all
these processions and other events was a celebration of the civic identity of the
participants, which was frequently fully explicit, and also marked by dances
and jousting in the days before and after the more formal religious ceremo-
nials. They were also, of course, intended to support local power structures and
social hierarchies, as with the popes Easter Monday procession in Rome, which
represented (among other things) his local sovereignty, or the particular festiv-
ities at Carnival and on St Johns day which Lorenzo de Medici developed
around 1490 in Florence to showcase his charismatic authority. Conversely,
such rituals were also foci for contestation, as, earlier in Florence, the opposi-
tion between urban aristocratic jousting and guild processions. Any proces-
sion could be disrupted, indeed, to make a political point: that was how internal
civic crises often started. One-off political points were also made procession-
ally, as with the often elaborate and expensive joyeuses entres into towns by
Burgundian dukes and French kings, which of course represented external
power, but could be manipulated to make their own public arguments by the
citizen groups (guilds, confraternities) who had paid for them. Almost all these
public events, indeed, were paid for by town-dwellers, and that conveyed a
sense of ownership which allowed plenty of different points to be made, if
Towns were complex places, even after their populations halved in the wake
of the Black Death, and they needed to be regulated. Urban statutes survive
from the thirteenth century onwards in considerable numbers, and the prob-
lems of government were many: not only ensuring that civic taxes were
collected and markets and guilds were properly run and violence kept under
control, but, more widely, the creation and defence of public space, the disposal
of sewage (an almost impossible task), the banning of activities held to be
unpleasant (such as tanning, and, more unexpectedly, candle-making) from
town centres, or attempts, as in Italy, to prohibit unrestrained grief in funeral
processions. That last example shows that secular government in cities often
200 medieval europe

saw itself as having a role in the creation of what it saw as public morality, too.
The problem of how good government should be achieved was faced first in
Italian cities, as is logical since they were effectively sovereign, but widely
thereafter as well. Brunetto Latinis encyclopaedic The book of the treasure,
written in the 1260s and focused on his experience as an official in Florence,
was excerpted and adapted in London in the early fourteenth century by the
city chamberlain Andrew Horn, for example, and was also widely available and
translated in late medieval Spain.27 Such government, however, was of course
also focused on maintaining the power of urban lites, or of one of their
factions, often in the face of considerable opposition; it was coercive as much
as administrative. Indeed, the need to bolster up lite power, plus a fear that
bad behaviour by the few might menace the town as a collectivity, could and
did produce moral panics among urban rulers; these largely depended on the
chance crises which hit, whether war, struggles with external powers, or plague,
but they often accumulated across time. Marginal groups, who could be
thought to have provided that menace, suffered as a result, as we shall see later.
For town-dwellers, there was little aspirational literature to match romance.
The expressed aspiration of Italian citizens, for example, was more architec-
tural (squares, civic buildings) and image-based, as with the Allegory of good
and bad government of Ambrogio Lorenzetti (133839) in the Palazzo Pubblico
of Siena. Patriotic poetry, urban chronicles, and tracts on city government, in
Latin for the most part, were seldom aimed at filling this imaginative gap.28 In
Italy, we have to wait for Boccaccios Decameron to find a vernacular civic text,
focused on the elegant storytelling of ten Florentine aristocrats fleeing the
Black Death in a country retreat. Much of the content of their stories is not as
elegant as their conversation, but instead bawdy and comic (and far more
attractive for a modern reader than most other writing mentioned so far in this
chapter), but it regularly has an urban and commercial background, and its
values and prejudices are those of the urban upper class, made slightly more
aspirational by the delicate manners of the storytellers, even when they are
telling stories about sex. Chaucer borrowed the format for his Canterbury tales
of the 1380s and 1390s, although in his case he mixed a very urban (in his case
London) consciousness with an intent, visible in a wider cast of storytellers
than Boccaccio had, to speak not so much for London, but for society as a
whole.29 Unsurprisingly, articulated urban narratives were mostly restricted to
lites who did not work with their hands, including the ricordanze tradition,
developing out of account books, which allowed prosperous civic figures in
Italy from the fourteenth century onwards to recount their lives and those of
their families. Only in the fifteenth did this tradition occasionally extend to
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 201

real workers, like the builder Gaspare Nadi of Bologna (d. 1504), whose diary
begins with his record of his birth in 1418 and proceeds, over hundreds of
pages of the modern edition, until just before his death; even then Nadis work
tends for the most part to record Bolognese and Italian political events, plus
some conflict among fellow-builders, and only occasionally the affairs of his
family it is an oddly impersonal text. But anyway we would look in vain for
an urban lite Lancelot, let alone a romance hero who was an artisan, in any of
our medieval literary forms.30
Some medieval urban literature, indeed, was the opposite of aspirational.
The bawdy aspect of the storytelling of Boccaccio and Chaucer is matched, and
far exceeded, by the thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century north French
fabliaux, relatively short comic poems, certainly with roots in oral storytelling,
of sometimes quite startling obscenity. A simple example is The maiden who
felt ill at talk of fucking, in which the new farm servant finds that, as long as he
uses euphemisms, the maiden concerned is only too delighted to have his erect
young horse and his two round stable boys drink at the spring in her meadow,
as often as they like. It cannot be said that fabliaux are representative of urban
values only; they largely were, but they will have been popular in all kinds of
social environments. They were also, undoubtedly, less shocking to the sensi-
bilities of audiences in 1300 than they would have been in (say) 1950, and
indeed would still be to some audiences now. But the naturalism of their
contexts allows us to recognise the socioeconomic flexibility of the north
French society they deal with (there are plenty of nouveaux riches, who gener-
ally get their comeuppance in the derisive conservatism of these texts), and the
imagery of the marketplace returns often: this is a society involved with towns,
even if it is not always an urban society. Anyway, what we can certainly say is
that the society, which appreciated poems such as these, did not need to idealise
itself, or not exclusively at least: they are about trickery, and, above all, enjoy-
ment. This is sexual enjoyment for the most part, as it might be in any time and
place, but food imagery marks the genre just as much; the stews, partridges,
pastries, fish, wine, and much else, lovingly listed, are as much part of the texts
as the equally carefully described human genitalia.31 It is worth adding that
eating (and sometimes avoiding) good food appears repeatedly in Margery
Kempes (very different) book as well, and also in the Parisian bourgeoiss
advice manual; if we strip away the idealised world in medieval secular repre-
sentations (or, at least, do our best to strip it away), food and the pleasure of
eating is what we end up with on a very regular basis.32 This was probably
common ground in the whole medieval period, but it is particularly clear from
now on.
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An imagery of direct peasant origin is more of a problem. The fabliaux are

not always bourgeois, but they are certainly contemptuous of peasants. An
often-cited (because relatively clean) example is The peasant donkey-herd, in
which the peasant, hauling manure, enters a spice market and faints because of
the sophisticated and unfamiliar smell, and only revives when some of his own
manure is put under his nose. In this respect these poems do not differ from
most other medieval literary traditions. Indeed, the ridiculous vileness and
stupidity of the peasant majority was so obvious to the literate social strata that
it is not always even stressed it was so much an axiom that, as with the gender
boundary, the gulf between peasants and everyone else could be played with in
texts, as for example in the myths that the earliest royal houses of Poland and
Bohemia were both descended from peasants, or in the Christ-like if simple
virtue of William Langlands Piers Plowman in the late fourteenth-century
English poem of the same name. The values of the peasantry themselves, by
contrast, were so far from the sensibility of most writers that peasant revolts in
the late middle ages often seemed close to meaningless. Steven Justice has
clearly shown how English-language texts preaching the Peasants Revolt of
1381 invoke a concept of truth, itself related to usages in Langland, which
implies collective just activity, something which was so invisible to lite
commentators that they casually preserved the texts in their own chronicles.
What peasants thought they were doing is otherwise systematically falsified in
most of the narratives that survive for us.33
It is true that knowledge about and involvement with literate practices
extended quite far into peasant society by the fourteenth century in much of
Europe. One result was that peasants sometimes found their way into public
debates about the direction of politics; we shall look at this in Chapter 12.
What literacy was directly available to them, however, tended to be pragmatic,
rather than representing in detail their cultural values. Indicative is Benedetto
del Massarizia (d. c. 1501), a peasant in the countryside outside Siena, part-
proprietor, part-sharecropper, who recorded his rent-payments and buying
and selling and credit operations between 1450 and his death in two surviving
account books; each deal had to be recorded by others, for he could not write
(although he evidently valued writing and could doubtless read). That text is
gripping for the complexity of his dealings, not for his views about the world.34
For the most part, peasant values and presuppositions are only available in
detail through their witnessing in court in civil litigation,35 criminal prosecu-
tions, and inquisitions about heresy and sanctity and thus, although often
expressed in the first person, are recorded in texts written by people who were
not peasants, and often not in the language of the witnessing. But such texts are
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 203

certainly illuminating, perhaps above all those concerning heresy. We saw in

Chapter 8 that what peasants told inquisitors about heresy often (even if not
always) simply reflected what inquisitors expected, but at least when they
contextualised their statements about meetings with supposed heretics they
could provide guides to their assumptions about more secular matters too.
Emmanuel Le Roy Laduries famous account of a very late (1320s) anti-Cathar
investigation at Montaillou in the Pyrenees, although it takes a literal approach
to the inquisition record which sidesteps not only the distortions of the inquis-
itor but also the narrative strategies of the peasants themselves, nonetheless
constructs a rich picture of peasant attitudes to time, space, the complicated
relation between pastoralism and agriculture, household structures, contra-
ception and illicit sex (the philandering village priest used a herb which, if
worn around the neck, prevented semen from curdling, thus avoiding preg-
nancy), and mutual delousing etiquette. It is this sort of external framing, then,
which gives us our most detailed, even if distorted, account of peasant thought-
worlds, in all their complexity.36 Future work for this is a field which is not as
fully ploughed as one would think will give us guides to difference too, for the
Europe of the middle ages held a myriad of different peasant societies, each
with distinct value systems, which in the future might be, as so far they have
not been, properly compared.
In the late medieval period, all the same, we can say more about the
construction of rural communities. Villages gained franchises, as we saw in
Chapter 7, and other forms of rural collective identity, in much of the west
between (very roughly) 1100 and 1300; these became more organisationally
developed as time went on, around the village church and its ritual life (parish-
ioners were generally in charge of church upkeep), and around local political
and economic collective structures. In much of England, even though peasants
were often legally unfree into the late fourteenth century, manorial court
records show that the villagers themselves policed their community, using
local customs which had largely been generated by themselves. Such customs,
and policing, were normal throughout Europe. Customs were formally
recorded from 1300 onwards (sometimes earlier) in England in custumals, in
Germany in Weistmer, in France and Spain in the franchise documents them-
selves, in Italy in village statutes, some of which are very complex texts.37
Villages and their parishes already had their boundaries confirmed ceremoni-
ally too, through religious processions (as in towns) or the beating of the village
bounds, although accounts of these before 1500 are fairly sketchy. The land-
scape was itself often numinous, full of sacred spaces of differing importance,
as we know because Protestant reformers spent much time in the sixteenth and
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seventeenth centuries trying to secularise it; communities drew on that too,

drawing up (often competitive) networks of collective religious practice.38
Villages were hardly idyllic; they always had difficulties with their lords,
obviously, and were also themselves run by village lites who could be over-
bearing part of the tension in the Montaillou inquisition hearings came from
the fact that Catholic villagers were happy to bring down a leading Cathar
family, who included the villages badly behaved and domineering priest,
already mentioned. They faced newer dangers, too: to village solidarity, when
new families who were less interested in it rose in status, like the yeomen of late
medieval East Anglia, getting rich through dealing in grain and playing the
local land market; or to village coherence itself, when, in Tuscany, late medi-
eval settlement steadily became more dispersed into the isolated farms of
sharecroppers.39 But the network of rural communities, which had taken shape
across Europe by the end of the middle ages everywhere, usually survived.
The only place in Europe where narratives give us a peasant voice is Iceland,
for the family saga tradition of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries
provides us with very detailed and naturalistic imaginative accounts of the
affairs of Icelanders who were, certainly, the islands lite, but were peasants all
the same. Icelands tenth-century Norwegian settlers avoided even the weak
kingship they had experienced in Norway (see Chapter 5), and any other form
of government except regular assemblies, and for much of its medieval history
it is hard to see who could have exercised it. Only in the thirteenth century did
it become possible for more than a small number of people not to farm the land
directly, and for the decades around 1000, the chronological focus of most
family sagas, the narratives assume that even the richest people, the subjects of
the texts, worked with their hands. These texts are anonymous, so exactly what
sort of person wrote them has been disputed, but Icelandic literature was
largely secular, and the sagas relate to a certainly secular oral tradition. Icelandic
men in these texts were macho and suspicious, but also often very cautious, as
peasants frequently are; they were committed to revenge-killing when their
spiky honour was at stake, but their assemblies provided an elaborate network
of courts in which grievances could be addressed, before peace was made or
men turned again to fighting. As Iceland had no superior authority with effec-
tive disciplinary power, such courts had no coercive force on their own (all
they could do was outlaw people); they worked because they were public arenas
in which other men could see where right and wrong lay, and whether it would
be sensible to take part in future violence.
Icelandic saga narrative is nonetheless focused, to a remarkable degree, on
the need to feud to preserve honour and on the etiquette of feuding. The social
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 205

set-up just discussed was the basis for some very subtle accounts of the work-
ings-out of feud, with an attention to characterisation and motivation for the
principal figures, male and female alike, which is unmatched in any other type
of medieval text except a handful of the most thoughtful chronicles. One classic
example is Gudrun Osvifsdottir, an extremely strong-minded woman, who,
out of jealousy, goads her husband Bolli, with great dramatic tension, into
killing his cousin and foster brother, Gudruns former love Kjartan. When Bolli
is killed in return by Kjartans kin and allies, Gudrun resolutely has them
hunted down and killed, but admits to her son in old age that I was worst to
the one I loved the most, meaning (she does not say, but we have to conclude)
Kjartan. The reason for this attention to character was that, in a relatively
economically equal society like this one, personal strengths and weaknesses,
and reputation, could determine success and failure almost totally. This was a
non-aristocratic society whose self-representation was indeed aspirational, but
here the aspiration was only in part focused on honour, for honour in such a
society was available to nearly everyone if they had the character and skill to
maintain it; it was highly transactional. People did, nonetheless, aspire to a
more ordinary courage, and an effectiveness in negotiation through careful
and targeted violence plus a literary style of laconic discourse in the face of
difficulty and death which has seldom been surpassed.40
Historians have sometimes written about the discovery or development of
the individual when dealing with later medieval sources; this is a false image,
for individual identity exists in all societies and no-one who knows texts of
the Carolingian period could doubt that it existed then. All that we are dealing
with, when we consider the widening range of social groups whose voice can
be heard in the late medieval centuries, is the steady extension of literate prac-
tices, which, as stressed in Chapter 8, by no means changed peoples wider
perceptions, least of all their perception of individuality. But if there was ever
a medieval society in which we know a great deal about individual identity it is
Iceland, for particular reasons: because, to repeat, in this peasant environment
it was individual character which determined success and failure, more
completely than almost anywhere else in medieval Europe.

* * *
The construction and bounding of communities had as its other face the
growth of practices of exclusion. These were not new in the later middle ages.
We saw in Chapter 8 how the growth in central power, both secular and eccle-
siastical, in the thirteenth century was accompanied by an increasing hostility
to out-groups, heretics, Jews, lepers, homosexuals: these people, defined as
206 medieval europe

beyond the increasingly rigid boundaries of Christian society, were by now

more often seen by lites (in particular) as polluting and viscerally dangerous.
This argument gives a context to late medieval developments too. Urban
governments had regular moral panics about able-bodied beggars and prosti-
tutes, for example, and municipal legislation about them developed systemati-
cally. In London, it is notable that the major panics in the fourteenth century fit
well with periods of wider tension: the fear of French invasion in 133840 at
the start of the Hundred Years War, the aftermath of the Black Death in the
1350s and 1360s, the aftermath of the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which had a big
effect on London; the phraseology of cleanliness appears in municipal acts,
and the image of moral pollution is hard to escape. These clean-up campaigns
may have had popular support, but were above all lite-led.41 So was the
fifteenth-century development of witchcraft theory, which was generated
above all in the minds of theologians and inquisitors, and was hardly at all a
major preoccupation of secular society except in the valleys of the Alps, until
the success of the Hammer of witches, published by the inquisitor Heinrich
Kramer in 1487, which would have a long and dark future in the later sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries.42
Of these exclusions, however, the key one was in every century the experi-
ence of the Jews; for they were a permanent non-Christian presence, often
disliked but theologically tolerated, and protected by popes as reluctant witnesses
to Christian triumph. Jewish communities in Mediterranean Europe went back
to the ancient world, and some, particularly in Spain and southern Italy, were
substantial; around 1000 or so they moved into towns in northern France and
the Rhineland as well, often as merchants, and then into Norman England (their
settlement in eastern Europe came later, as part of the German colonisation
movement after 1150). Their achievements in biblical commentary, philosophy
and spiritual thought match those of the Christian tradition in the central and
later middle ages, even if this had less effect on Christian intellectual life than
translated Arabic thought did although the great Jewish theologian Moses
Maimonides (d. 1204) did influence Aquinas. As time went on, Jews increas-
ingly became associated with moneylending, which did not help their popu-
larity with their Christian neighbours; and nor did their use as state agents by
kings. But it was rulers and urban lites whose hostility tended to be much more
important for the history of Jewish communities. As in Visigothic Spain in the
seventh century, another society obsessed with religious unity, in the thirteenth
century Jews faced greater state persecution: they were forced to wear special
clothing by Innocent III, and the Talmud was burned in France under Louis IX
(one of medieval Europes most anti-Jewish kings) as supposedly containing
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 207

blasphemous statements. These regulations, and early expulsions of Jews from

England in 1290, from France more than once from 1306 onwards were essen-
tially royal decisions, made for religious and fiscal reasons, with relatively little
popular pressure. Not that popular tolerance was particularly benign. David
Nirenberg has shown how the secular acceptance of Jews was a violent one as
well, punctuated, that is to say, by regular hostile episodes: either fitting the
Christian ritual calendar, as with the systematic violence often undergone by
Jews during Easter week, or occurring when crusades came through, for, from
their very beginnings in the Rhineland in 1096, those moments of religious
fervour were regularly accompanied by massacres.
The tolerance of Jews was incomplete, then; and there was a growing
hostility to them from lites. And violent moments, even if still episodic,
spiralled in number in the fourteenth century. Excluding crusades, 1321 in
France, 133638 in the Rhineland, 134851 in Spain, France and Germany
(there was always less of this violence in Italy), 1391 in Spain again, were
particularly important instances of religious hatred and massacre, focused on
towns. Jews were accused of poisoning wells in 1321 (together with lepers), and
again above all in 134851, as part of the attempted explanations of and hysteria
following the Black Death; fantasies that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian
children, which seem to have begun in England in the twelfth century, or that
they desecrated the bread used in the Eucharist, also gained ground. Pogroms
were largely conducted by urban leaders, city councillors and the like; in Spain,
only the 1391 violence (and its successors in the fifteenth century, by now also
focused on converted Jews in royal and urban government) was principally a
spin-off of the political grievances of non-lite groups. Either way, however,
hostility to this religious minority was much more entrenched at the end of the
middle ages than it had been in earlier periods. It was part of the sharpening of
collective boundaries which can be traced in other ways too. It culminated in
1492 in the expulsion of Europes largest community of Jews from the king-
doms of Spain, again by royal decree, but this time with rather more popular

* * *
In the patterns of late medieval culture, we have looked in this chapter at some
clear trends: the contradictory directions in the opportunities available to
women, a growing availability of evidence (often in the form of imaginative
narrative) about the cultural assumptions and practices of more and more
social groups, a growing cohesion of social strata and a greater visibility of
community boundaries, a growing edginess about and potential hostility to
208 medieval europe

outsiders. These trends were underpinned by more generalised developments:

the still-growing complexity of the economy, which allowed for both expan-
sions and contractions in female protagonism (as also considerable social
mobility among the lucky and the unlucky, which itself led to the sharper
policing of social boundaries); the steady extension of literacy and literate
practices, which both reveal to us an ever-greater range of difference and
enabled those differences to be accentuated; and the contradictions and ambi-
guities involved in the growth of central and local power. Major social and
cultural shifts cannot be reduced to single causes in any period, of course, but
these three developments do indeed seem to me to mark the late medieval
centuries more than any others, and they played off each other. As we shall see
in the next chapter, rulers and lites had the force and resources to control
more, as time went on; but at the same time local societies and practices, which
were themselves more and more complex, escaped every control. This is simply
the further working-through of the cellular nature of local power after the elev-
enth century, discussed in Chapters 6 and 8: if wider political power was built
up on the basis of such various foundations, the other side of the deal was, in
effect, that it was very difficult to change the nature of the cells themselves,
lordships, urban communities, villages, from the outside. These cells did not
get weaker in the later middle ages, far from it; as we have just seen, they were
ever more clearly delimited, now that not only local power structures but social
strata, classes, were gaining clearer boundaries. Rulers sometimes reacted
badly, trying to coerce local communities in shrill or violent ways. But those
communities were themselves entirely capable of behaving coercively when
things were seen as having gone wrong. Socioeconomic change which is
ill-understood and, as we shall see shortly, after 1350 this included the shock
of the Black Death, not to speak of the spin-off effects of widespread and
serious war tends to provoke fear in most societies, and bad behaviour
resulted from that in the late middle ages too.
But this does not mean that the late middle ages was particularly marked by
fear, or anxiety; this argument has often been made, but it seems to me to have
almost no force.44 There are terrors in every period, but for the most part
people get on with their lives, for better or worse. What really marks out the
late middle ages, in this respect by contrast to earlier medieval centuries, is the
extension of political activity, both positive and negative, to a much wider
range of people. Another result of the long economic boom, and the contin-
uing development of the European economy after the Black Death as well,
was that society was much more diverse, and people who considered them-
selves protagonists in some way or other, and were thus empowered to try to
Defining society: gender and community in late medieval Europe 209

influence their world, became much more numerous. Landed aristocracies, in

their widest definition (that is to say, including the gentry and their equivalents
across Europe), had started to become more substantial already in the eleventh
and twelfth centuries, with the acceptance of the castellan and knightly strata
into different versions of the aristocratic lite; each lite stratum came to have
its own separate voice, both locally and nationally. Urban lites, too, who barely
existed in 1100 outside Italy, Constantinople and Muslim Spain, were present,
often rich, and loud everywhere by 1400, and less privileged urban groups were
making their own claims; a few urban women were autonomous protagonists
too, as we saw at the start of this chapter. And peasant voices were louder by
now as well, in many places; there were, among other things, more peasant
revolts after the Black Death. So: this cellular, collective world was one with
more players in than before. They were harder to control, and they required
different forms of politics to confront, as well as generating different forms of
the public sphere themselves. How that political environment worked we shall
look at in Chapter 12.
chapter eleven

Money, war and death, 13501500

The Black Death of 134752 defines the beginning of the late middle ages. But
really three sets of events bestride the last century and a half of the medieval
millennium; the other two are the network of wars, in particular between
England and France, called by historians the Hundred Years War (notionally
13371453), and the Great Schism of the papacy (13781417). All three char-
acteristically have capital letters in historical writings. Actually, despite this,
none of the three had quite as much effect as they have been often ascribed; but
they are important starting points all the same. I will begin with them and the
issues they raise, and then move on: first to a sketch of the economic changes
of the period, and then to a rapid country-by-country survey of what was going
on in the politics of late medieval western Europe, particularly in the fiscal
underpinning of state-building. This will act as a framing for the discussions in
the next chapter of changes in the nature of political practice in Europe.
The Black Death is first documented in the Crimea in 134647, and from
there it spread around all the coasts of the Mediterranean (it was very severe
in Egypt), and moved steadily northwards from Italy in 134849, reaching
Scandinavia in 134950 and doubling back into Russia from there. Glands
swelled up, black pustules appeared, fever was high, and death was usually fast.
The death rate was huge, a third to a half of the population; and the successive,
lesser, waves of plague which were regular until around 1400 and then steadily
less regular for centuries after, resulted in a Europe at the end of the fourteenth
century with around half the people it had in 1346. Demographic levels were
slow to pick up in the fifteenth too. Not every region was hit in the first wave of
plague, but later waves caught them as well. Towns, where people lived cheek
by jowl, were particularly affected. Even the powerful caught it (to the partic-
ular horror of chroniclers), although only one European king seems to have
died of it in the first wave, Alfonso XI of Castile. And if the first wave could be
seen as a one-off devastation, by the time of the second (in 136163 for many

Money, war and death, 13501500 211

places) people realised that it was going to stay, as an extra new and deadly
The Black Death affected the imagery of mortality for centuries afterwards.
But and this is the first of several buts this did not, after the terror of the
first wave (which resulted in anti-Jewish pogroms, as we have seen), have the
devastating effect on peoples confidence and emotional states that has some-
times been claimed. Life was too uncertain anyway; the causes of early death
were numerous, in the absence of decent medical knowledge, and this just
added one more, which, a generation after 1350, was already being taken for
granted. We also might have expected the Black Death to interrupt wars, by
making army recruitment and also taxation harder; it did not, or only for a
short while (the Hundred Years War resumed in 1355). And, given the close
link between demographic growth and the expansion of complex economies in
Europe in previous centuries, we might have expected economic crisis after
1350 indeed, for a long time historians took it for granted that this happened;
but recent work on England, the Low Countries and Italy has doubted that too,
convincingly. Only economic regions whose prosperity depended on high
levels of population suffered systemically, and there were few of these. The
Black Death did have an impact on economies, all the same; we shall see how
in the next section.
The Hundred Years War began because Philip VI of France (132850) and
Edward III of England (132777) were in the 1330s on ever-worse terms over
the autonomy of English Gascony, around Bordeaux; and the war became hard
to end because Edward thought (not wrongly) that he had a good claim to the
French throne through his mother Isabella, one of the last two direct heirs of
Philip IV. It escalated into intermittent war after 1337, marked above all by
numerous English cavalry raids across France, sometimes met by the French in
pitched battles, which the French tended to lose. In 1356 the battle of Poitiers
resulted in the capture of the French king John II, and the resultant peace gave
the English an enormously enlarged Gascony in the south of France. These
territorial gains were then eaten away by cavalry raids, now undertaken by the
French, and English gains were mostly lost by the 1370s. The war began again
in earnest with a new attack by Henry V of England (141322) in 1415 which
ended in a new victory, at Agincourt, and this time a full-scale war of conquest
in northern France, which brought half the country under English hegemony
by 1429 Paris was in English hands in 142036, and the child king Henry VI
was crowned king of France there in 1431. Partially thanks to Joan of Arc,
however, a French fightback had begun by that point; Charles VII of France
(142261) had already been crowned in the proper coronation site at Reims in
212 medieval europe

1429. By 1450 the English had lost all their post-1415 conquests, and in 1453
Bordeaux too.2
The war was remembered, ever after, as Englands greatest European impe-
rial moment, and Frances greatest crisis (until 1940, at least). It has parallels
with some other examples of adventurism in this period, notably French and
Aragonese conquests in southern Italy, as we shall see;3 but here it menaced,
and at times substantially reduced the strength of, Latin Europes major power.
All the same, England, which had tried and failed to conquer Scotland in
12961314, was in reality far too small to defeat and occupy France, a country
three times its size and population, on any permanent basis; its successes may
have begun with battles, but were above all maintained by support from French
partners in an intermittent internal civil war, which left the English much more
exposed when the French made peace with each other. Also, for large sections
of the hundred years of this war there was no fighting in reality (it was indeed
punctuated by treaties and marriages); conversely, wars between the French
and the English had already begun in 1294, and did not really end until the
English lost their last French mainland possession, Calais, in 1558. The partic-
ular period of the war can thus easily be deconstructed. But it is important
nonetheless, for two different reasons. First, because this semi-permanent
state of war became the axis around which much western European politics
revolved. Anglo-Scottish wars, the hangover of the English attempt to conquer
Scotland, continued throughout the fourteenth century and were swept into
the French war through a Franco-Scottish alliance; English and French involve-
ment in wars in Castile and Portugal in the 1360s and 1370s was another
spin-off; and imperial princes were regularly part of the war as well, such as
King John of Bohemia, who died in battle against the English in 1346.4 Secondly,
because the knowledge that this was an ongoing war led to a fiscalisation of
state policy in both countries which was largely new. Wars were by now almost
always fought by mercenaries, everywhere in Europe with a few exceptions
such as Scotland, Switzerland and Lithuania, so states needed money to pay for
them on a considerable scale. Short wars could be sold to cautious taxpayers as
one-off expenses; not this one. The implications of this for the way political
power worked in both England and France were great, and I will come back to
it later.
The third key event was the Great Schism. The popes after the humiliation
of Boniface VIII in 1303 were all French-speaking until 1378, and did not base
themselves in Rome; in 1309 they settled in Avignon in what is now southern
France, a small city which they could control rather better than Rome, and
during the century they were based there the sophistication and wealth of the
Money, war and death, 13501500 213

papal administration reached its height, as also its power over the church
appointments of Latin Europe. Although the French kings did not actually rule
Avignon, this was a very French power; nearly half the funding of the papacy
came from church dues in France, and, conversely, the popes by now allowed
the French king to tax church land for the English war. But the sense that Rome
was the proper place for popes to be never went away, and by the 1370s it had
become powerful; as we have seen, Gregory XI moved back in 1377. He died
a year later, and in a tense conclave the cardinals elected an Italian archbishop
as Urban VI (137889). Urban in short order fell out with them, however, and
they reunited four months later, announced that they had been coerced to elect
him, and replaced him with a French cardinal as Clement VII (137894).
Clements lack of support in central Italy resulted in him returning to Avignon
again, where he stayed. This was not the first schism in the papacy (1130 has
similarities in the parallel legitimacy of each side), but on this occasion the
European powers found it hard to agree on who was the legitimate pope: France,
Scotland, Castile, Aragn and (initially) Naples went for Clement; England,
most of Germany, north-central Italy, Poland, Hungary and Scandinavia went
for Urban. Much of that was again Hundred Years War choices; almost all the
rest was geopolitical in other ways. It proved impossible to get either side to
back down, even at papal deaths; the Avignon pope was renewed once, and the
Roman pope three times, in the next nearly forty years. Embarrassment grew,
and cardinals from each side met at Pisa in 1409 to remove both popes and elect
a compromise candidate; unfortunately, the two popes did not resign, and now
there were three. A second council, at Konstanz in Germany (141418), held
under the aegis of the emperor Sigismund (141037), was more carefully
planned, and one pope resigned, one was deposed and one lost almost all his
political support and was marginalised. Martin V (141731), from an old
Roman aristocratic family, was the first universally recognised pope since 1378,
which by now few people could remember.5
The Great Schism has its comic sides, but it was deeply upsetting at the
time, particularly inside the church and the universities, for it undermined the
moral legitimacy and international reach of a church hierarchy which was by
now taken for granted, particularly because even canon-law experts genuinely
could not decide, and soon made the decision not to decide, which pope was
the legitimate one their task was to get the rival popes to agree to step down
so that the process could be begun again, which the popes all agreed to do in
principle but not, for a long time, in practice. Lay powers were less upset, and
could cope pretty well with an uncertain and weakened papacy, although papal
division was in the long run inconvenient for the French, and they made most
214 medieval europe

of the efforts to end it. What the Schism did not produce was the deep-seated
malaise about papal power which was for a long time part of the Protestant
grand narrative of the origins of the Reformation. But it did lessen the ability of
popes to determine church appointments across Europe, and it reduced their
income very considerably Martin V had half the income of Gregory XI,
although it rose again later;6 as a direct result, from now on, the national
churches gained a degree of autonomy which they had not had since the twelfth
century. And the religious theory which had to be developed to justify church
councils with the power to depose popes would have a significant effect on the
broader theory of politics from now on, as we shall see in the next chapter.
These three framing events were serious enough that they can be seen as
giving a flavour to the whole of the late middle ages, one of crisis. Historians
have very often done so, indeed. But that would be to misunderstand the
period. John Watts, among others, has argued convincingly against much
previous work, that this was not an age of systemic crisis for political power. Far
from it, in fact; it was a period in which political systems steadily gained terri-
torial coherence and fiscal strength, building on the thirteenth-century consol-
idation process that we looked at in Chapter 8.7 The economy of the period fits
that picture too, as we are about to see. The second half of this chapter and the
one following will then develop the political analysis further; for, if we want to
understand how Europe worked at the end of the middle ages, how its politics
was constructed seems to me one of the most crucial issues to confront.

* * *
The European economy was not devastated by the Black Death, even if losing
half the population inevitably had economic results. There was indeed a poten-
tially positive effect on the survivors of the plagues, simply because among
peasants fewer people meant more land per person, and among salaried
workers a smaller workforce had considerably improved bargaining powers, in
theory at least. And the macroeconomic context was not seriously damaged.
We saw in Chapter 7 how the centuries up to 1300/1350 saw greater levels of
commercialisation, with a newly capillary relationship between towns and the
countryside, and also a beginning to peasant demand for urban artisanal prod-
ucts; this did not lessen. Towns were hit hard by the plague, but overall, after a
period of shock, immigration began again, and average percentages of urbani-
sation in the now-smaller population seem to have remained much the same;
indeed, urban wealth is evident in the fact that, still today, the most striking
medieval secular buildings in major cities such as York, Bruges, Valencia,
Venice, Prague are mostly from after 1350. It is true that the sense of bounce
Money, war and death, 13501500 215

which is visible in the European economy between 1150 and 1300 is less visible.
There was no long-term economic depression, but economies did not all
continue their steady increase in complexity, and shorter-term downswings,
for example in the mid-fifteenth century in much of northern Europe, do seem
to have been more common.8 Conversely, however, Europe continued a trend
to economic integration. The heavy focus on the Flemish cloth towns which
was so strong a feature of the north European economy of the twelfth and thir-
teenth centuries dropped back, in favour of a wider range of northern urban
areas. The Hanse towns of the Baltic and north Germany reached their height
in the fourteenth century and early fifteenth, profiting from, among other
things, the opening up of the plains of Poland for grain production and export,
in return for cloth and salt. England turned from the export of wool to the
production and export of woollen cloth, partly cutting out the Flemish
producers; and the great south German towns, Ulm, Augsburg, Nrnberg,
backed up by a network of smaller towns, began their centuries-long regional
dominance of cloth and metal production and increasingly banking too. The
Hanse turned itself into an urban league which dominated the politics of
weaker Baltic countries such as Sweden, and the strength of both the Hanse
and the southern towns had clear effects on German political balances as well.9
Flanders faced difficulty as a result of this competition, certainly. All the
same, a continuing demand for luxury cloth plus a complex structure of local
demand, and also the centrality of Bruges as a port, preserved urban prosperity
there until the end of the middle ages, by which time the epicentre of the Low
Countries productive economy had moved north, to Antwerp as a trading
centre and to what is now the Netherlands as a developing area of intensive
agriculture and cheap cloth.10 The rise of new centres of production and
exchange was thus additional to Flanders, not a replacement for it, and Flemish
commercial activity was tightly integrated into the Hanse. The major Italian
towns did not face the same threats. States in the peninsula by now gave pref-
erential treatment to the key economic activities of their largest cities, which
were also regional political capitals, such as Florence, Venice and Milan, and
government interventions were important in, for example, the establishment of
major silk industries in Milan, Ferrara and Naples; but this was counterbal-
anced by an increasing density of small-town and rural artisanal activity, which
again marked a trend to wider urban-rural exchange. Venice and Genoa, for
their part, continued to control the Mediterranean luxury trade, almost as
completely as before.11 In southern Europe, nonetheless, productive foci spread
outwards too, to Sicily, Valencia, and Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), plus the great
Castilian entrept of Seville.12
216 medieval europe

This movement outwards of economic activity would have been impossible

if commercialisation had not continued on much the same scale as before. And
this is where the Black Death had its most substantial effects. In villages, there
was breathing space again, and peasants both had more land at their disposal
and could potentially negotiate better terms with landlords. The post-1350
period was, for example, the moment at which serfdom finally disappeared
from western Europe, and, in the western kingdoms, in general landlords did
less well than peasantries. This did not come without a struggle as we shall
see in the next chapter, this was a period with some notable rural revolts and
in some areas of Europe, in particular east of the Elbe, lords won, resulting in
the new subjection of previously freer peasants: this subjection indeed helped
the development of Poland as a region of major grain production for export.13
But in the west agricultural specialisations appeared (dairy farming, market
gardening, hops), peasant diet improved (in England and Germany it included
more meat, for example), and also, importantly, so did peasant buying power
for artisanal goods. In an earlier period, this would not have helped much, for
economic complexity had largely been based on the demand of lords, not peas-
ants; but now that capillary local commerce had been established it could
continue with a peasant market as well, and did. Furthermore, peasant family
members in the Low Countries, England, and parts of northern Italy, increas-
ingly worked for others for salaries, for at least part of their lives, a fact which
in itself presupposes an increased level of commercialisation. The next stage in
parts of the Low Countries and eastern England would be the rise of peasant
lites and middlemen, yeomen, whose accumulated estates were increasingly
worked with a salaried labour force, resulting in a substantial change in the
basic structures of production.14 And salaried workers everywhere particu-
larly in towns, where working for money was overwhelmingly the norm were
able to use their scarcity for 150 years after the plagues to negotiate higher
wages, notwithstanding the labour regulations which most rulers enacted as
soon as they could after the Black Death (in England, already in 1349) to try to
hold down wage levels.15 Workers and employers fought over this with some
commitment in the next century and more, with urban revolts even commoner
than those in the countryside. But mass buying-power increased here too,
feeding off and feeding into the commercialisation of the period.
This is obviously a very broad-brush sketch, and its implications must not
be overstated. Social mobility is very evident in this period, with new rural
strata, and the still-constant move of peasant families into towns, a few of
whom would prosper greatly; an increasingly dense network of buying and
selling is evident too. But its development was relative; economic integration
Money, war and death, 13501500 217

had not got very far, for example (of course it is still, in the twenty-first century,
incomplete), salaried workers were in a minority (sometimes a small minority)
in most regions, and, even in this period, whether economic complexity
depended on peasant (i.e. mass) demand more than on lite demand still
cannot be said. Overall, what one can see in the fifteenth-century economy is a
high-level equilibrium system, with its ups and downs, which included oppor-
tunities for an increasing intensity of agricultural and urban production as
also opportunities for new regions to take advantage of the continuing facility
of exchange, such as southern Germany and eastern England and the northern
Low Countries; more of France would join them after the end of the Hundred
Years War too. This changed the geopolitics of Europe, sometimes substan-
tially. But there were no indications in 1500, or indeed 1600, that this system
was anywhere due to change dramatically in its economic structure, despite
every attempt by historians who have the Industrial Revolution in the corner of
their eye to see its early signs. Europe had certainly developed the infrastruc-
ture to take economic advantage of the next, entirely external, change, the
opening up by violence of the Indian Ocean by Portugal, and the Atlantic and
the Americas by Spain, at the very end of the fifteenth century and into the
sixteenth. By then the most active regions of southern Europe were also doing
better than the long-standing Mediterranean economic powerhouse, Egypt,
which (as it currently seems) had not, as Europes regions had, recovered from
the effects of the plague. But Europe had not by the end of our period become
more economically complex than the great Asian regions, the west coast of
India, Bengal and east-central China, and no-one would have expected it to.16

* * *
This is the background for understanding Europes political histories after
1350, which I want here to set out in order, briefly, so that the reader gets a
fuller sense of the variety of Europe, in the period with the best documenta-
tion. I will start with France and take a broad anticlockwise sweep, through
Britain, Iberia, Italy, up into the German lands, then east to Hungary and
Poland and north to Scandinavia (for further east than that, see Chapter 9).
The set includes three interesting new arrivals, Switzerland, Burgundy and
Lithuania, although several of the others show new configurations too. What I
want to bring out here is less the narrative detail of political ups and downs
than some basic political structures, above all the changing wealth of rulers.
My main underlying focus throughout will indeed be on the nature of the fiscal
structure of each polity, as both government and war (war in particular) by
now cost much more than they had in, say, 1200, and this had consequences.
218 medieval europe

Whether kings and other rulers still relied on the wealth coming from their
own lands (the domain, as historians of this period often call it), or could
develop taxation on a scale large enough to pay for bigger or more permanent
armies and denser infrastructures of government, thus has crucial implications
for the comparative history of politics. Put simply, rulers who did not develop
strong fiscal systems by now could do less, both inside their polities and outside
them, than rulers who did, even though they often tried to behave in the same
way for those without resources had the same ambitions as those with them.
This point is not always stressed by historians, but it seems to me essential, so
I shall stress it here.17
France was in 1300 the most powerful state in Europe, and in 1500 it was
again, at least in the west (in south-east Europe, it was by now surpassed by the
Ottoman empire); but it had gone through hard times in between. Most of that
was the fault of the English invasions, but not all. The madness of its long-lived
king Charles VI (13801422) meant that the period between the two great
English attacks was taken up with squabbles, and sometimes wars, between his
immediate relatives, each of whom had a substantial territorial power-base,
who sought to control the regency. France, as we saw in previous chapters, had
been constructed out of a network of lordships, and some of these themselves
became larger and more coherent with time; in periods when the king was
ineffective, this partially decentralised structure was more visible, and the
troubles of the early fifteenth century were certainly one such period. The
major lords were still fighting when Henry V invaded in 1415, and this contrib-
uted markedly to his success after Agincourt; for the new duke of Burgundy
and count of Flanders, Philip the Good (141967), after his fathers murder by
his French enemies, formally allied with England between 1420 and 1435. The
1420s were the low point for the cohesion of the French state as a result. All the
same, what is also striking is its resilience. Charles V (136480), while still
regent for his imprisoned father John II, easily managed to get the estates-
general of France in 1360 to agree a substantial levy to pay his fathers ransom,
which turned into a regular tax after 1363; this paid both for the first French
counterattacks against the English and for adventurism in Spain and southern
Italy, as well as for a more developed bureaucracy, which was, importantly, an
increasingly active employer of aristocrats, thus binding their interests together
with royal power. Frances fiscal system was unusually solid from now on.
Significantly, although it was eroded substantially under Charles VI and by
Henry Vs conquests, it could be formally revamped in 1421 by the future
Charles VII to pay for the new war, and regularised further from 1435; by
Charles death in 1461, tax, and the standing army it paid for, were a normal
Money, war and death, 13501500 219

part of French royal resources, now no longer dependent on the assent of the
estates-general. Whereas royal lands provided half the revenues of Philip VI in
the 1330s, by the late fifteenth century that proportion was down to 2 per cent
of a far larger budget. Louis XI (146183) built on this systematically, and
fought off aristocratic anti-tax revolts; after he took over the duchy of Burgundy
in 147782, the king was hegemonic in his kingdom.18
England did not do so well. Of course, it lost the French war in the end; but
even while it was going on, successful occupations of French land did not result
in dramatically increased fiscal resources, for these were all spent on the war.
(Individual aristocrats got rich from the war, however, which provided a push
to continue it.)19 English taxation was more firmly established as a principle
when the war began, which helped in its early years one-off taxes for the start
of war in both 1339 and 1415 produced huge sums of money which no other
European polity could then match. But so was the granting of money by parlia-
ments, and no late medieval English king ever managed, or even tried, to tax
on more than a small scale without parliamentary consent. As I argued in
Chapter 8, the English ruling class was already used to seeing its role as one of
co-participants in government unlike in every other European polity outside
the Italian city-states, there were no hard-to-touch autonomous lordships,
except in colonial Ireland and that role was more and more exercised through
meetings of parliament, which were by now close to annual. The Lords domi-
nated parliamentary politics, but the Commons, representing gentry and urban
lites, was vocal by the late fourteenth century too. At times of royal weakness,
parliament could intervene directly, attacking the corruption of royal courtiers,
as in 1376, 1388 and 144950. And kings were personally weak, for a long time,
even if the cohesion of the English state in general favoured governmental
strength. After 1370, Edward IIIs old age and the minority of his grandson
Richard II (137799) allowed, as in France, for the unpopular hegemony of
royal relatives, notably Richards uncle John of Gaunt. Gaunts son Henry of
Lancaster seized the throne from a now-adult Richard, who was trying to
reduce aristocratic influence over his government, but Henry IV (13991413)
was in a difficult position as a usurper, Wales spun out of his control for a
decade under a charismatic prince, Owain Glyn Dr (d. c. 1415), and he
became increasingly ill: a magnate council ruled in his last years. Henry V was
quite a different figure, but he only ruled nine years, and Henry VI (142261)
was a child, again with a regency of relatives. The adult Henry VI was the
most inept king in medieval English history, and by the 1440s the war was
going very badly; tensions between major aristocrats and between them
and parliament ended up in open civil war after 1455, with a rival descendant
220 medieval europe

of Edward III, Richard of York, claiming the throne by 1460. Richards son
Edward IV (146183) won the war, but his brother Richard III was killed in
battle against an Anglo-Welsh usurper with almost no royal blood, Henry VII
Tudor, in 1485. Henry V and Edward IV, neither of them long-lived, were in
fact the only effective kings in the century after 1370.20
What kept England operative as a cohesive and densely governed commu-
nity in this period which it remained throughout, notwithstanding the trou-
bles of the Lancaster York wars (called the Wars of the Roses in the nineteenth
century) after 1455 was the commitment of the magnate oligarchy, which
ran the kings council and interacted constantly with parliament. It fought
internally, and its personnel changed as a result, but the oligarchy remained.
Conversely, one thing that did not remain at earlier levels was taxation. Apart
from in 1339 and 1415, royal resources were usually at levels of about half those
of France throughout the period up to 1400, but in the fifteenth century taxa-
tion steadily fell, and by the 1480s English royal incomings were under a
quarter of those of its larger neighbour, over a third of them being from the
royal domain, which had enlarged thanks to confiscations during the civil
wars. The international traction of England dropped back as well. When
Edward IV invaded France in 1475, Louis XI could simply buy him off, with
money Edward badly needed, and English offensive war was henceforth rela-
tively rare for over a century.21
Scotland was a much simpler political system. Its army was unpaid, and
mostly there to defend against English attack, plus border raiding. Royal land,
plus judicial and customs dues, provided almost all the kings revenues, which
were very small by English (never mind French) standards; attempts by James
I and James III to get the Scots parliament to agree regular taxation in the 1420s
and 1470s came to little. The Scottish political system, indeed, resembled that
of many early medieval states more than that of most of its contemporaries,
and for long its local governing structures were hardly changed from those of
the twelfth century. Robert I the Bruce (130629), who had fought off the
English, created a partly new Scottish aristocracy out of his own followers in
the wake of that victory, and his grandson, the first Stewart king Robert II
(137190), put his own family members into many lordships too. But this did
not increase royal power much, for it was never conceivable that a king with
such limited resources and infrastructure could directly control what happened
in the localities, and even his sheriffs were hereditary lords. The ever-present
English threat (although weaker in the fifteenth century) allowed a community
of the realm to persist here, with king and magnates generally collaborating
and intermarrying, except at occasional moments of crisis both James I and
Money, war and death, 13501500 221

James III were assassinated, in 1437 and 1488. James IV (14881513) achieved
more by moving systematically around his kingdom, again early-medieval-
style. But Scotland remained highly decentralised.22
Moving south into the Iberian peninsula, Scotlands need for defence
against a stronger neighbour also fits Portugal, the minor player out of the
three main kingdoms here. Portugal was under constant threat from Castile,
particularly in the fourteenth century, and when there was a succession dispute
there in 138385 the Castilians tried to conquer it; but they failed (partly
thanks to English troops), and John I of Avis (13851433) and his fifteenth-
century successors ruled a stable country, with borders which did not change
after 1297 (and, except for one village, have not changed since). The kings took
advantage of the political aggregation which was necessary for Portugals
survival to create a coherent legal system and a permanent sales tax; after peace
was finalised with Castile in 1411 they also looked to the only area for adven-
turism which was available to them, Africa. Attempts to conquer Morocco
were always a costly failure, but the coast of west Africa brought more: Madeira
in 141921, which soon became a valuable sugar producer, and from the 1420s
onwards incursions ever further south along the African mainland, in voyages
funded by royal princes and port towns. This steady extension of economic
and military commitment southwards explains why the Portuguese ended up
invading the Indian Ocean in the 1490s, but up till then the scale of their ambi-
tion was rather less, as also was the profit they got from it. The Portuguese
kings taxed, but they maintained a prosperous domain-based state above all,
thanks to their wide lands, even if a rather stronger one than Scotland.23
Castile was much larger and more of a player. The king here potentially had
an ideological centrality as the frontline fighter against the Muslims, although
after the mid-fourteenth century the small remaining Arab amirate of Granada
was not a threat, and not very often threatened either. A civil war in the 1360s
saw Peter I replaced by his illegitimate elder brother Henry II of Trastmara in
1369. Civil wars tended to produce fiscal cessions to wavering aristocrats and
towns but at the same time a contradictory need to find money for armies, and
so it was here; all the same, the kings, as in Portugal, kept control of a sales tax,
and the Castilian cortes were also prepared to vote direct taxation for Aragonese
and English wars for Henry and his son John I (137990). The figures we have
for royal revenues in Castile in the later fourteenth century are substantial,
matching those for England. This gives a political context for the anti-Jewish
pogroms of 1391, when the new king Henry III was a minor, for they were part
of a violent popular reaction against a royal power which was by now at its
222 medieval europe

That power slipped back in the fifteenth century, though. There was then a
sequence of weak reigns in Castile, and also a civil war in the 1440s between
ruling magnates which paralleled that in England a decade later. Royal claims
to power remained ambitious, but royal revenues steadily declined in the
middle decades of the century through cessions to aristocrats, and were half
those of England which were themselves by now lower, as we have seen by
the 1470s. Isabella I (14741504), who was married to the heir to Aragn
Ferdinand II (14791516), seized power from her niece, the rightful heiress
Joanna, in a moment for the Castilian state which was, overall, quite negative.
But it is significant that she managed to turn it around. Hers was not the first
dynastic link with Aragn, but it held, and was intended to from early on; she
and her husband managed to reassert their fiscal powers again, establish a
much greater degree of order, and regain a measure of direct control over the
cortes, the towns and even some lordships which had not been seen since 1400.
The political collectivity created by Isabella in Castile reached a high intensity
with less attractive measures, the decision to conquer Granada (148792), the
expulsion of the Jews in the latter year, and a campaign against Jewish converts.
But the fact was that a sense of what late medieval Europeans frequently called
the public good had not vanished in the troubles of recent decades, and in
Castile, as in France and England, the aristocracy was by now deeply involved
in a royal government which they gained financial benefit from, so could see
the advantage in its renewed strength.25
Aragn had a similar political structure to Castile, with cortes or corts as
parliaments (here several, representing the kingdoms greater decentralisation)
which agreed taxation; but here they offered less money, and on much more
conditional terms, than in Castile. Its major towns, in particular, were stronger
and far from easy to control. The Catalonia and Valencia corts, central to
Aragonese authority, developed a contractual political theory of limited royal
government based on consent, as expressed for example in the influential
political-religious tract, The twelfth of the Christian, by Francesc Eiximenis (d.
1409), which had parallels in English political practice, and they used this to
get concessions from the kings. But Aragn was also on the Mediterranean
coast, and Barcelona and Valencia were major trading centres, meaning that
the kingdom did have resources, however conditionally available. It thus
looked outwards too, and both Sardinia and Sicily were regularly in its range
Aragonese kings, usually from junior lines, ruled Sicily after 1282, plus
Naples after 1442, and Ferdinand II definitively conquered both again in 1503.
These effectively colonial conquests, in the case of Sicily of a rich island, meant
that Aragn punched above its weight, much as England did at times.26
Money, war and death, 13501500 223

Naples (i.e. continental southern Italy) and Sicily had been a single kingdom
until 1282, ruled by the Normans and then the Staufen as we have seen. As a
spin-off of papal wars against Frederick II, Charles of Anjou, Louis IXs brother,
conquered the kingdom in 1266; but Sicily revolted in 1282 and chose an
Aragonese king instead. Charles I, when he had secure control of the whole
Staufen kingdom, was the richest monarch in Europe in financial terms, with a
strong tax base; the resources of his grandson Robert (130943), who only
ruled Naples, were still at the level of contemporary England.27 But the two
southern kingdoms spent much of their incomings in the fourteenth century
fighting each other, and in both cases magnates gained more autonomy as a
result. Charles III of Naples (138186) did not help this when he also invaded
Hungary in 1385, a piece of adventurism which gained an extra throne for a
year but resulted in his assassination; the Hungarian claim persisted until 1414,
although Naples was by now fighting off equally adventurist attacks from
France again. Fifteenth-century Sicily was more prosperous, under external
Aragonese rule. Naples was less so until the Aragonese conquered here as well;
Alfonso V of Aragn (141658, 144258 in Naples) based himself there at the
end of his life, and he and his son Ferrante (d. 1494) made use of a much more
peaceful period to establish coherent government, with a strong fiscal base
unconstrained by parliament, which Ferdinand II of Aragn would then retake
a decade later. Both kingdoms were, evidently, always rich enough for outsiders
to be interested in taking them over, but weak enough to find it hard to resist
them, not a fortunate combination.28
The numerous north Italian city-states present particular problems of
synthesis, but at least have in common two developments in this period, a
move away from republican rule and a steady move to larger political units.
The permanent effervescence of political systems in the thirteenth-century
communes, which were continuously changing to try to calm factional rivalry
and to accommodate the claims of new social strata, began to make way for the
longer-term rule of single rulers, who tended to gain power as head of a faction
and then grab it permanently for themselves and their heirs. In English they are
often termed despots; the Italians call them, more neutrally, signori, lords.
They were very various. The Visconti in Milan (12771447) and the Este in
Ferrara (from as early as 1240 onwards) were old aristocratic families which
had been important since the eleventh century or before; the Della Scala in
Verona (12631404) and the Medici in Florence (1434 onwards) were from the
commercial lite, in the latter case the largest-scale bankers of their time; the
Sforza in Milan (14501500) were initially mercenary leaders. In almost all
cases, however, they gained power by promising to respect and better defend
224 medieval europe

republican institutions, which by and large they did, while filling them with
their own men and cutting out rivals, in ways made famous by the Florentine
Niccol Machiavellis highly pragmatic masterpiece, The prince, of 151314.
Only Venice, Genoa, Siena and, after a period of signorial government, Lucca
stood out against this trend, and they mostly did so by establishing tight and
closed oligarchies of leading families who split urban offices between them a
system which was indeed often less open than the still fairly meritocratic
governing systems in the signorie.
The second development was one of conquest. Italian cities had systemati-
cally fought wars against each other since the twelfth century, but in the four-
teenth century, in particular, stronger cities began to take over the whole
territory of their rivals. Florence and Milan began this, and Venice followed
after 1404; by 1454, when the powers of Italy made the Peace of Lodi and estab-
lished relative stability for a generation, these three were by far the dominant
cities in the north. It is worth adding that the trend to larger states was uncon-
nected to the trend to signorial rule; of these three only Milan had a signore at
the time of its conquests, and it had a particularly strong communal tradition
of aggression to build on. It is, conversely, important to recognise that
conquered cities, Pisa under the Florentines or Verona under the Venetians,
kept their previous political structures, which were simply from now on condi-
tioned by the rule of others; there was here a parallel with the wider continui-
ties of government under the signori. In most cases, indeed, rulers of Italian
cities were well aware of and respected the concerns of the ruled, and if
they were not they could face revolt: both Milan and Florence, for example,
re-established full republics briefly, in 144750 and 14941512 respectively,
and so did Pisa in 14941509. Notwithstanding that, Italian cities were tightly
governed, and also very used to paying taxes; cities in northern Italy and, still
more, their rural territories were almost certainly more highly taxed than
anywhere else in Latin Europe in the later middle ages. Indeed, tax assessment
by the fifteenth century was more elaborate than it had ever been, as with the
Florentine catasto of 142730, in which every field possessed by potential
contributors was valued. Here, the officers of the state (themselves paid for by
this taxation) had to deal directly with every householder in the Florentine
republic, in far more detail than had been the case for the English Domesday
Book, the cutting-edge assessment tool of three centuries before. The money
produced by these means was for long needed to pay for mercenary armies,
despite the risks which these could bring to small-scale political systems;
everyone in Italy knew well that Francesco Sforza was only the tip of an iceberg
of potentially ambitious war-leaders. After the Peace of Lodi it was still
Money, war and death, 13501500 225

collected, however, and Italian wealth still visible in the expensive fifteenth-
century buildings of nearly every Italian city would attract new sequences of
invasion, from France and Germany, in the decades after 1494.29
Halfway through this survey of Europe, it is worth setting out an interim
report. All the kingdoms and city-states we have looked at so far, in western
and southern Europe, had some form of systematic tax-raising powers, except
Scotland. In eastern and northern Europe, which we are about to come to, for
the most part they did not the major exceptions being Burgundy, which was
on the edge of France and shared in the latters fiscal complexity, and the
stand-out eastern European state, Hungary. A line running, roughly, from
Venice north-west to Antwerp thus marked a real difference in political cohe-
sion and political heft in the late middle ages and also political influence, for
the eastern and northern polities of Latin Europe looked to France, the prin-
cipal western and southern European power, and to a lesser extent Italy and
England, far more than the French (or the Italians or English) looked to them.
We saw in Chapter 5 how the northsouth boundary in Europe, which was so
visible in 800, had become considerably attenuated by 1100; but even in the late
middle ages, with exceptions, it still marked a rough opposition, by now not so
much of culture, but one of economic and thus political power. All the same,
the eastern and northern polities were at least as interesting as their western
and southern neighbours, so we must now turn to them for a closer, if still
brief, look.

* * *
If Italy is hard to generalise about, Germany is by now impossible. The German
empire continued (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation as it was
called from 1474), but its direct power had gone. In fact, the emperors for the
most part had powerful local bases, coming as they did from the Luxemburg
kingdom of Bohemia (13461400, 141037) and then the Habsburg duchy of
Austria, for Bohemia was a large and relatively coherent principality and
Austria, although less coherent, was at least large. But their presence in the rest
of the empire was largely ceremonial. That is not a small thing, and the force of
the imperial ideal, including the practical appreciation of the emperor as a
neutral arbiter, increased rather than decreased. But Charles IV (134678)
mortgaged away imperial lands and rights very extensively, to support imme-
diate political needs, and by the mid-fifteenth century there was close to
nothing of these left. It is striking that at the end of that century there was an
attempt to revive the imperial role, particularly under the active Habsburg
emperor Maximilian I (14931519), with legislation in imperial assemblies
226 medieval europe

and in 149599, for the first time, a general empire-wide tax, but even then the
estates of the large duchy of Bavaria refused to ratify it, and it was not renewed.
Instead, the empire was a carapace for hundreds of principalities and imperial
cities, occupying land-areas large and small. The cities, headed by Nrnberg,
Augsburg, Lbeck and Cologne, were the richest and most influential polities
in the south and north of the country; the largest territorial states were, by
contrast, in the east, Brandenburg, Saxony, Bohemia, Austria, Bavaria, plus,
over in the far west, the lands of the duchy of Burgundy, which in the fifteenth
century were expanding out from France. The imperial cities had quite elabo-
rate fiscal and governmental systems, parallel to, although simpler than, those
of Italy. The larger principalities by and large did not, and, even after tax-raising
became more common in the fifteenth century, princely revenues were above all
based on domain lands there. The very great differences across the German
lands, set against an increasing sense of common German identity, produced a
constant shimmer of discussion and an awareness of alternative possibilities
which was greater than in many places in Europe.30 That awareness would
increase further after Martin Luther circulated his ninety-five theses in Wittenberg
in 1517, and after many German principalities adopted versions of Roman law in
the decades after 1500. But for now we simply need to register it; let us instead
look at three local examples, all of them unusual, to get a sense of the potential of
political action in the empire: Bohemia, the Swiss lands and Burgundy.
Bohemia was the only Slavic-speaking polity to become part of the German
empire, and wooded mountains around three sides of it gave it an unusually
solid territorial integrity, even if there was substantial German immigration
around its edges and in its towns. Its native Czech dynasty of Pemyslids
ended in 1306, and by 1310 its ruling kings were from the western German
Luxemburg family; Charles IV was not only emperor but the dominant prince
of his time. He made Prague a real capital, with a newly founded university, and
the city still preserves his stamp. Charles ruled in Bohemia largely on the basis
of domain lands and the profits from the great Kutn Hora silver mines; he
took over several other principalities, at least temporarily, but he spent impe-
rial mortgages on that. Charless son Wenceslas/Vclav IV (13781419) had
less presence; he was emperor too, but was deprived of the title by half the elec-
tors in 1400, and in Bohemia itself he was forced to cede much authority to a
collectivity of aristocrats in 1405. By his death in 1419, this had become swept
up into the Hussite revolt, a religious movement inspired by the teachings of
Jan Hus, who was executed for heresy in 1415 at the Council of Konstanz. We
will look at Hus and his successors in the next chapter; what is relevant here is
simply that the movement took over the Czech lands, fighting off a sequence of
Money, war and death, 13501500 227

Catholic armies. Between 1419 and 1436 the Czechs did not even recognise a
king, but instead ruled by councils, which were intercut by conflicts between
a radical Hussite wing of lesser aristocrats, townsmen and peasants and a
moderate wing of nobles and university masters; its armies were volunteer, and
the states fiscal resources became much weaker, even after the moderate wing
won in the late 1430s. The next effective king, George of Podbrady (145871)
was an aristocratic Hussite, and he too had to ward off papal-sponsored attacks
against him. He resisted them, and did his best to re-establish a national
community; his power was further underpinned by the revival of dues from
silver mining, which continued under absentee Jagieonian and then Habsburg
kings thereafter.31
The Swiss confederation is claimed to have begun with a peace agreement
between three rural communities of the western Habsburg lands around Lake
Luzern, in 1291. In 1351, more concretely, they agreed a pact of mutual defence
with the nearby city of Zrich, which was backed up with similar pacts with
Bern, Luzern and other centres. These were not the only pacts which cities and
small territories in southern Germany entered into to establish a measure of
mutual security in the fragmented empire, but most of these particular territo-
ries were also subject to the Habsburgs, and they had to fight off an army sent
against them to restore Austrian rule in 1386. The fact that the Habsburg duke
Leopold III was then defeated and killed gave the Swiss confederation a
measure of confidence that allowed it to extend its range significantly. Habsburg
power never returned, and was formally renounced in 1474. Instead, the
confederation developed a skilled peasant-based infantry army whose members
were used as mercenary forces by other powers, and established a very loose
autonomous government, extending slowly to more and more principalities
and cities across the fifteenth century and early sixteenth. It needs to be stressed
that the Swiss had a confederation (they still do), not a unitary state. Each
member had a separate identity and fiscal structure, and indeed they some-
times fought each other. The interests of towns, nobles and peasant communi-
ties were also structurally in conflict. But, unusually (and, in particular, unlike
in Bohemia), the losing social stratum was for the most part the rural aristoc-
racy; the main conflictual relationship became that between cities and strong
peasant communities. Small wonder that turning Swiss was a threat with
revolutionary overtones in the early sixteenth century.32
The dukes of Burgundy were a junior branch of the ruling house of France,
who in 1384 inherited the immensely rich county of Flanders, also part of the
kingdom of France. But both of these principalities were on the borders of
the kingdom, and had close links with lands in the empire too. Of imperial
228 medieval europe

territories, in 1384 they gained Franche-Comt, in 140430 Brabant, in 1428

Hainaut and Holland; by the mid-fifteenth century they had expanded
outwards and controlled almost the whole of the Low Countries, the first time
that a single regional power ever had nationalist history in both Belgium and
the Netherlands traces its lineage back to them. The Burgundian dukes were
often a key support for England in the second phase of the Hundred Years War,
as we have seen, and Philip the Good began to think in terms of a newly config-
ured territorial state, with a very ambitious court culture. The dukes were
certainly wealthy enough for it; the figures we have put their revenues after
their expansion at the level of those of England, above all from taxation. Most
of that was from the Low Countries, however, and with that came the need to
deal with the Flemish and Brabanon towns, a relationship which was always
fraught. The other key problem for the Burgundian dukes was that their lands
were not fully contiguous, interspersed as they were with those of several impe-
rial powers, and were never fiscally unified. Philips son Charles the Rash
(146777) tried to remedy this by conquest, but this brought him firm opposi-
tion from the German lands, and he was defeated by the Swiss in 1476 and
killed in battle in 1477. The Burgundian realm in its strict sense ended here, for
Louis XI regained Burgundy itself soon after. But the dukes had at least united
the Low Countries, and Charles daughter Mary (147782), who continued to
rule them, was married to Maximilian of Habsburg. Maximilian took them
over as a block after her death, in wars against both the French and the Flemish
towns between 1482 and 1492.33 The Habsburgs, from their insecure Austrian
and imperial base, thus inherited the main centre of Burgundian wealth and
power. And that would become, by chance, the basis for still more. Mary and
Maximilians son Philip married the heiress of Castile and Aragn, Joanna;
Philip died young and Joanna was excluded for insanity; so between 1517 and
1519 Philips son Charles V inherited the imperial title, Austria, the whole of
the Low Countries, the whole of Spain, and the whole of southern Italy. Mexico
and Peru would come later. Charles, with almost no need for war this time,
thus reaped the benefit of all the military adventurism of the Burgundians and
the Aragonese, and European history would shift as a result in the new century.
These three examples show what divergent results could develop inside the
imperial lands. The political players in the empire could also be active well
outside it: the last Luxemburg emperor, Wenceslass brother Sigismund, was
indeed for the most part based not in his family kingdom of Bohemia (until a
treaty with the Hussites in the last year of his life), but in Hungary, which he
ruled for fifty years, from 1387. And, for all that Bohemia could be a strong
power base at times, Hungary was a much stronger one. The weakening of
Money, war and death, 13501500 229

royal power there in the thirteenth century (see Chapter 8) had been reversed
by two forceful kings from a new dynasty, yet another inheritance for the house
of Anjou, Charles-Robert and Louis I (130982), who, on the back of dues
from silver and then (from the 1320s) gold mines, and, soon, a land tax,
regained half the castles of the kingdom and ruled with little hindrance from
the old aristocracy. Louis, in particular, fought abroad, expanding southwards,
and inherited the crown of Poland too, in 1370. His daughters divided Poland
and Hungary between them, and after a confused period, marked as we have
seen by invasion from Naples, Sigismund succeeded in Hungary as husband of
Louiss daughter Mary. But aristocratic revolts against a German/Czech king
continued until after 1400, and, subsequently, Sigismunds imperial activities
kept him out of Hungary half the time, too. It is not surprising that royal wealth
lessened and the internal structure of the kingdom weakened in this period,
one reason being that the gold mines, and the profits from them, were by now
less remunerative. But mining and taxation continued, and the infrastructure
of the kingdom, with paid officials, was solid enough to cope with Sigismunds
absences, the new need to defend the southern frontier against the Ottomans,
and a sequence of short-lived rulers after his death. Matthias Corvinus, son of
the aristocratic general and regent John Hunyadi, was chosen as king in 1458
and ruled effectively until 1490, reviving royal power, and taxing heavily
enough to maintain a standing army and a rich court at Buda, his capital. It is
true that weaker kings and greater aristocratic influence succeeded him, and
most of the Hungarian kingdom was conquered by the Ottomans after their
great victory of Mohcs in 1526. Largely because of this, Hungarian historians
have a very negative view of aristocratic power in medieval Hungary. But the
key point that must be stressed here is that a strong and lucky king was always
able to bounce back. Charles-Robert and Matthias both show it; so does
Sigismund to a lesser extent. A lot of royal land, a tradition of taxation, and
not least royal-dominated mining allowed the kings to have access to at
least some resources even when they were weak, and resources on the level of
English and Castilian kings when they were strong. Both in royal wealth and in
political infrastructure, Hungary was the most powerful kingdom north of
Rome and east of France for the whole of the later middle ages.34
Exactly the opposite was the case of Poland, Hungarys neighbour to the
north. The early kingdom of Poland, divided between heirs in 1138 as we saw
in Chapter 5, was reunited in part and with great difficulty by Wadisaw I
oketiek (king 132033); thereafter, he and his son Kazimierz III (d. 1370) still
had to contend with a very decentralised kingdom, with dukes who were semi-
independent, a legal system intercut with autonomous German-law towns, and
230 medieval europe

an increasingly forceful community of aristocrats. Next door to Poland was the

grand duchy of Lithuania, the only major polity in Europe which had not
become Christian; it stabilised as a power under Gediminas (131542) and
steadily expanded eastwards, mostly at the expense of warring Russian princi-
palities (see Chapter 9). Poland and Lithuania were tactically linked by common
opposition to the German crusader state of the Teutonic knights, based on the
Baltic coast, which was seeking to conquer the eastern Baltic and which reached
the height of its own power in this period. After the deaths of Kazimierz and
then his successor Louis of Hungary in 1382, in the jockeying for power that
followed, Jogaila of Lithuania (13771434) married Louiss other daughter
Jadwiga, and converted to Christianity in 1386, taking the Polish throne a year
later as Wadisaw II Jagieo. His cousin Vytautas took over Lithuania in a
family deal in 1392, and ruled as grand duke until 1430, taking Lithuanian
hegemony south-eastwards to the Black Sea, as well as crushing the Teutonic
knights at Tannenberg in 1410. Vytautass reign marked the height of Lithuanian
rule in the Russian lands, and its eastern borders began slowly to contract
from then on in the face of the rulers of Moscow. All the same, the combined
PolandLithuania by now the basic political structure of the region, even
if different descendants of Wadisaw Jagieo sometimes ruled each half
was in geographical terms the largest polity in the whole of Europe in the
fifteenth century. But it was not the strongest, by any means. Although the
Lithuanian army was an effective attacking force, the grand duchy had almost
no political infrastructure, and had to recognise considerable autonomy in
the major subdivisions of what had been Kievan Rus. And Poland, although
more coherent, crystallised in the later fifteenth century, under Kazimierz IV
(144692) and his successors, as a polity dominated as much by a collectivity
of aristocrats, united in the sejm assemblies, as by a king. Only the most forceful
kings, as Kazimierz was himself, could counter that. Poland lacked a structured
fiscal system (assemblies often refused royal tax requests), and the kings usually
ruled on the basis of the resources of their domain lands almost alone except in
times of war, for which taxation grants did become more frequent. The often-
tense relation between kings and powerful local lords, which usually resolved
itself in favour of the king in Hungary and sometimes also in Bohemia, thus
went the other way in Poland, in particular from the 1490s on. Complicated
family interrelationships between these three kingdoms which resulted,
indeed, in Jagieonians ruling every one of them after 1490 did not change
this basic structural difference.35
Similar dynastic games marked the three Scandinavian kingdoms of
Denmark, Norway and Sweden Denmark being always by far the strongest in
Money, war and death, 13501500 231

its infrastructure, and Sweden the weakest. We saw in the last chapter that
Margaret I (d. 1412), heiress to Valdemar IV of Denmark after 1375 and widow
of Hkon VI of Norway after 1380, united all three by force in 138789. Her
nephew and designated heir Erik of Pomerania (13891439) was crowned king
of all three kingdoms at the Union of Kalmar in 1397, an act far more formal
than the de facto dynastic unifications of the Jagieonians, and one which
survived Eriks own deposition in 143940. It did not last, all the same.
Denmark and Norway stayed together until 1815, but Sweden was less keen,
and elected as its own king the aristocrat Karl Knutsson in 1448. Christian I of
Denmark (144881) reconquered it in 1457, but renewed Swedish indepen-
dence was only a matter of time, and was complete by 1523, under the new
Vasa dynasty. There was a temporary trend towards elective monarchy in the
three Scandinavian kingdoms, and a resultant prominent role for aristocratic
councils in each of the three, with aristocrats as local administrators as well; in
all this they resembled Poland in its noble-dominated constitutionalism, and
the political structure of each was often as weak. But in Scandinavia the aris-
tocracy was much less locally hegemonic. In many regions, the peasantry had
not been uprooted and disenfranchised, and in practice often dominated the
local legal and political assemblies, thingar, inherited from the early middle
ages (see Chapter 5). Peasant revolts began in 143334 in Sweden and Denmark
and 1436 in Norway, and marked the move to Swedish independence in partic-
ular. Although kings did tax in Scandinavia, this was usually on a small scale,
and insufficient to establish armies which were separate from aristocratic and
indeed peasant political protagonism to which we must add the autonomous
political input of major towns, and the transnational (but German-dominated)
Hanseatic league which linked them. When the Swedish riksdag or parliament
was formalised in the sixteenth century, indeed, it had a fourth estate of
peasants, almost uniquely in Europe. The inability of kings to dominate polit-
ical society in Scandinavia (even, to an extent, in Denmark) brackets them
above all, apart from Poland, with Scotland; and so does a political system
which, although showing plenty of late medieval attributes such as charters of
legal and political liberties (in Sweden in 1319 and Denmark in 1360), resem-
bled rather more the assembly politics of the early middle ages in its basic

* * *
This rapid survey of the political history of Latin Europe after 1350 shows up
some common themes. One was the game of dynastic inheritance of thrones
which could claim more than one kingdom at once: an Anjou-based branch of
232 medieval europe

the French royal family in Naples, Hungary and Poland, Castilian kings in
Aragn, Aragonese kings in Sicily and Naples, German and then Polish kings
in Bohemia and Hungary, Austrian kings in almost all of these at the end of the
middle ages and after; plus occasional German kings in the Scandinavian king-
doms, and the brief English kingship in France and, earlier, Scotland. Political
boundaries did not change very greatly except in parts of eastern Europe, and
nor did the internal political structures of kingdoms which were united in this
way, but the plate tectonics of dynastic alliance did, constantly. A second theme,
linked tightly to the first, was the possibility of some quite ambitious adven-
turism abroad, often overseas; it was usually ephemeral (even if, as with the
English in France, it could cause a lot of damage), but sometimes led to more
permanent control, as with the Aragonese in Sicily. What links almost all the
rulers we have looked at, in fact, is their preparedness, as soon as they had
enough money to get an army together (and sometimes even before that), to
attack not only their neighbours but also on occasion realms quite some way
away, for military glory and hoped-for permanent territorial control. Hard-
gained resources were spent above all on displays of power, the rich courts and
ambitious buildings which mark the post-1350 period, but an army was the
biggest and most expensive display of power of all, and using it to fight
someone was the logical next step. The military machine underlying early
modern political and fiscal development has its beginnings in this period, and
shows clearly that the state-building of the thirteenth century was built on
thereafter, systematically, nearly everywhere in Latin Europe. As was argued at
the start of the chapter, although many realms faced crises of different types,
this was not an age of systemic crisis for political power: it was quite the oppo-
site, indeed, as we can now see in more detail.37
When we come to fiscal systems themselves, all the same, what needs to be
stressed is difference. The polities of late medieval Europe were not all alike
fiscally, at all; they had different forms of taxation (direct versus indirect taxes),
different pacings for it (some taxes were annual and regular, but many were
only collected during wars), different weights of taxation, and different balances
between domain and tax revenues. All these meant that different styles of royal
exactions had different sorts of effect on their subjects, a set of contrasts that
has not yet been studied systematically by anyone. But they also had a global
weight. The more resources rulers had, of whatever type, the more they could
do; the level of those resources had a direct effect on the internal infrastructure
and political coherence of the different European powers.
By the end of the fifteenth century, the strongest and richest state in Europe,
with the most remunerative taxation system, was certainly the Ottoman
Money, war and death, 13501500 233

empire, which was based on fiscal patterns inherited from the Byzantine
empire and the caliphate alike (see Chapter 9). It had a density of assessment
and exaction which was not paralleled by any western polities except the most
effective of the Italian city-states for, as we have seen, Roman and Islamic
fiscal expertise had been lost in the west, and the western states, in their re-
invention of taxation, created less efficient structures, and failed to learn from
their more sophisticated neighbours. In the west, by far the richest kingdom
was France, in every period after the late thirteenth century except during
the troughs of the Hundred Years War; the extent of its fiscal control was less
great than that of the Italian cities, as just implied, but the latter were far smaller
and thus weaker. At a third level, there were England and Castile, and the
Burgundian Low Countries of the fifteenth century, although the first two of
these were more successful in this respect in the fourteenth century than until
very late in the fifteenth. Not far behind came Hungary, Naples/Sicily and
Aragn, and some German cities. Next, but rather further down, Bohemia and
Portugal. Every other polity in Europe had a far simpler political structure, and
its rulers, in PolandLithuania and the rest of eastern Europe, Scotland,
Scandinavia and much of the German lands, although they had the same sort
of political style and motivations as the rulers of richer territories, could do less
with it. Their wars were more difficult to pursue in the long term, their control
over their aristocracies was less great, their judicial role was also, very often,
less developed. Here fiscal coherence linked very tightly to political coherence.
It must be stressed that this is a structural conclusion, not a moral judge-
ment. The view that a rich and autocratic king, who extracts a lot of money
from his subjects, is somehow better (even worse, more modern) than a king
who has to face a powerful aristocracy cannot be justified in any sensible way.
But it is worth adding that political coherence could also derive from a very
well-organised internal decision-making and legal structure. Here England
stands out, plus the Italian city-states. The latter could again do so more easily
because they were small, but English internal organisation continued to benefit
here from an oligarchic involvement in policy-making and a tradition of justice
based on assemblies which went back to the early middle ages without a break,
the only example of this among the more powerful polities of the period for
other kingdoms which maintained an early medieval tradition of assembly
politics, notably in Scandinavia, were the opposite of powerful.
This very rough league table of political-fiscal coherence and basic wealth
in most cases was a league table of military effectiveness as well with some
exceptions, notably an Italy whose numerous rich polities mostly punched
below their weight militarily, and a Lithuania and a Switzerland which punched
234 medieval europe

well above. It is the basic framework which this account leaves us with. It must
be borne in mind as we look, in the next chapter, at political organisation and
protagonism: at the way parliaments of different types worked, at problem-
solving, at the intellectualisation of political decision-making, and at dissent.
These show common themes as well, as we shall see; but the differences just
sketched mean that the way these themes inflected locally remained distinct.
c h a p t e r t w e lv e

Rethinking politics, 13501500

We have now seen how the states of Europe were organised and resourced in
the late middle ages; but that was only one part of the politics of the period.
Equally important was what people both lites and non-lites thought their
rulers should do with their resources, and, more widely, how government
should be run. The late middle ages was, indeed, a period of considerable
debate about these questions. It marked the widening of a public sphere for
politics, which characterises this period in particular; the aim of this chapter is
to characterise some of its social and political context.
In the miserable years of Henry VIs reign in England, especially in the
decades of the kings nominal adult rule (143761), when the country increas-
ingly lost political direction and the war in France was failing, there was a
notable array of political discussion inside the literate strata of society, and
indeed sometimes beyond them. This discussion extended into the 1460s and
1470s under Henrys Yorkist supplanter Edward IV as well. It was marked by a
series of suggestions about which were the best political actions to take, which
were often contradictory, but also greatly varying in content and focus. The
Libel [booklet] of English policy, a xenophobic but well-informed pamphlet in
verse dating from around 143637, proposed that Englands foreign policy
would best be served by controlling the trade routes of the Channel very
aggressively, which would force the dreadful Flemings and Italians to support
English political interests. The Dream of the vigilant, an anti-Yorkist tract of
1459, argued sharply and cogently that rebellion against the realm to support
the common wealth is self-contradictory, for it means setting oneself unjustifi-
ably above the law; the Yorkists were a rotten tooth in the mouth, and should
not be pardoned. The Active policy of a prince, of around 1463, an often banal
poem by the imprisoned Lancastrian official George Ashby, which blamed the
greed of counsellors for their disloyalty to Henry VI (in itself far from a new
idea), had some quite targeted suggestions too: Henrys son Edward, if he

236 medieval europe

became king, should never trust his courtiers; Edward should regularly make
himself visible to the common people, but never trust them either. This sort
of intervention reached its most developed expression with John Fortescue
(d. c. 1477), chief justice of England after 1442 and another Lancastrian loyalist,
who changed sides in 1471 and presented his revised The governance of England
to Edward IV shortly after: here he advised the king to accumulate as much
land as possible, removing it from its recent beneficiaries, so as to be able to
outspend his richest subjects, who might otherwise rebel, as they recently had
so often as well as keeping the poor prosperous, again to avoid conflict (for
the English poor are less cowardly than the French, so are more likely to rebel).1
We cannot show that any of these pieces of advice were followed; even if
Edward IV certainly did his best to become rich, it would be hard to say that he
did so because of Fortescues suggestions. But what they together demonstrate
is that political actors of this period, including non-aristocratic ones, were
thinking about what was going wrong politically and trying to figure out the
best way to deal with it. These literate interventions significantly, mostly in
English, not Latin were backed up by a wider array of actors still, for the
sailors in 1450 who summarily beheaded the duke of Suffolk (since 1443 effec-
tively the regent of the kingdom) at sea did so in the name of the community of
the realm, which they saw as being above the king. That action was followed by
Jack Cades Kent-based peasant revolt of the same year, which was rather more
loyalist than its predecessor of 1381 (see below), and simply sought a better
government than that on offer in those decades (we blame not all the lords,
nor all that be about the kings person . . . but such who may be found guilty by
a just and true enquiry by the law). However cynical the actual manoeuvring
of political leaders in this period, the latter had to do so in an environment of
a continual and urgent discussion about what constituted good government
and how to improve it, which they could not be seen too blatantly to ignore.2
This debate was not restricted to England; far from it. Hussite collective
debates were one example. Northern Italy was another: Italians argued in every
city council (including under signorial rgimes) about how best to organise
their government, deliberations which in many cases survive. These in their
turn interrelated with the works of theorists, like the Roman lawyer Bartolo of
Sassoferrato (d. 1357), who discussed, in his sharp-eyed tract on (and against)
tyrants, i.e. those who rule unjustly, the need for cities sometimes to expel
someone powerful, troublesome and seditious if a just judge thought it neces-
sary. Such arguments then underlay the sensible but not quite so anti-tyrannical
suggestions about how to rule effectively in Niccol Machiavellis The prince
(for example: kill people if you really have to, but above all else, abstain from
Rethinking politics, 13501500 237

the property of others; for men forget the death of their father more quickly
than the loss of their patrimony); and these in turn are themselves sometimes
only crisper versions of what Fortescue had been writing over a thousand kilo-
metres away.3 All across Europe, the detail of political action was being analysed
and critiqued in the fifteenth century. This was new; or, at least, its intensity
was new.
It is important to be clear about the nature of the novelty I am trying to
describe here. It is of course true that educated Europeans had been debating
the moral and legal underpinnings of appropriate political action, that is to say
political theory, since the Carolingian period and before. In the late eleventh
century, such debates were enriched by the intense polemics of the pope vs.
emperor disputes of Gregory VII and his successors; in the twelfth, this was
developed, thanks to canon and Roman law, newly elaborated; in the thir-
teenth, a now-translated Aristotle was further added to the mix. In succession,
and among many others, John of Salisbury in the twelfth century, Thomas
Aquinas and Giles of Rome in the thirteenth, Dante Alighieri, Marsilio of
Padua, Bartolo of Sassoferrato and John Wyclif in the fourteenth, Leonardo
Bruni, Christine de Pizan and Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth, all added their
views, many of them very sophisticated indeed (we shall come back to some of
them); medieval political thought is a rich sub-field as a result. But these lumi-
naries tended, for the most part, to be quite unspecific when they came to
practical political suggestions. They were laying down theory, not relating it
closely to daily political practice. The mirror of princes genre of advice
manuals for rulers, again one with Carolingian, as also Byzantine, roots but
reaching its height with Giles of Romes On the rule of princes of 127780,
written for the future Philip IV of France, also tended to be quite generic moral
tracts.4 Even when they were more concrete, such writers tended simply to
present invective in favour of or against wider political structures (the power of
the emperor in Italy, for example, or the relation between the ruler and the law)
which were often being constructed on rather different principles in the real
world. And that was so even when some of them, Bruni for example, who was
chancellor of Florence in 142744, exercised political power themselves. The
political interventions in the England of the mid-fifteenth century which I
started with were, however, quite different. They were not, except for Fortescue,
the work of intellectuals (he had read several of the authors just cited, but the
others show no signs of it); and they were concerned with specifics of policy,
far more than abstract principles. If we go back into the thirteenth century and
even the twelfth, we do find some debate about policy; I discussed some of it in
Chapter 8. But there was less of it. By the late fourteenth century, something
238 medieval europe

had changed; the process of public political discussion had become much more
substantial and easier to document, and also more influential.
One basic reason for this was certainly the greater importance of parlia-
ments after 1350, linked to a greater need for taxation, and as a result a more
elaborate field for state action, above all in the stronger political/fiscal systems
in the league table outlined at the end of the last chapter. But that was not all
that was involved; another reason is the notable activity of international church
councils, particularly in the early fifteenth century; we can add a growing role
for elaborate legal systems, and, of course, the underpinning increase of literacy,
or at least of activities linked with writing, among the laity. Let us look at how
these interrelated.
The word parliament was used in this period to mean deliberative
assembly only in England and Scotland. (France had its own parlements, but
they were above all courts of law.) In France, such assemblies were called tats-
gnraux, estates-general (there were important provincial estates too), in
Spain cortes or corts, in Poland sejm, in the German lands and Bohemia very
often dieta, diet (in German Landtag or Reichstag), in Scandinavia thing
(although riksdag came in later, following German usage). They were in nearly
every case divided into estates, with greater aristocrats sitting and deliberating
separately from lesser landed lites and urban leaders, in many cases a separate
clerical estate too (though not in England), and in a very few cases (Sweden, as
we have seen; also, in the German empire, some territories in the Alps) an
estate of peasants. They were often representative bodies that is to say, men
(they were all men) were chosen to speak for others who were not there
except for aristocratic and church leaders, who mostly served in person.5 They
have therefore always had a lot of attention from historians who see them as the
origins of modern representative democracy. This is unhelpful; their presup-
positions were different, and there are very few cases in which there is even a
genealogical relationship with modern democratic structures (England and
Scandinavia are the clearest here). More interesting in my view is to determine
how far they were the heirs of the political assemblies of the early middle ages,
which had legitimated royal rule as meetings of the free men of the kingdom,
as we saw in earlier chapters, and here only Scandinavia seems to me to be able
to make that claim in full. In England, again the only other possible candidate,
the clearest surviving heirs of the assemblies of the Anglo-Saxon period were
shire and hundred courts, as we have seen. Twelfth-century royal assemblies,
even if late Old English texts still refer to them with pre-1066 terminology,
were given that the aristocracy was itself created by William I after the
Norman Conquest most of all collections of aristocratic counsellors called by
Rethinking politics, 13501500 239

the king, and legitimised by his authority, not the other way round; the post-
1230s English parliaments descended from them, rather than from Anglo-
Saxon precedents.6 Everywhere outside Scandinavia, in fact, parliaments (as I
shall call them all for convenience) developed out of royal councils, that is to
say of members of the kings court who were called by the ruler to advise him,
rather than to legitimate him.
But they became legitimating bodies again, for different reasons from those
of the early medieval past. As we have seen, parliaments were powerful (when
they were) because of the steady development of royal fiscal needs, particularly
in the strongest states; in much of Europe, only parliaments were authoritative
enough collective bodies to be able to sign off large-scale taxation. This was
usually why urban representatives were added to assemblies, too, in Aragn
already in the 1210s, in England stably by the 1290s: because taxing towns was
remunerative, and towns were also coherent enough bodies to resist if they
had not consented.7 But once collective bodies were recognised as necessary to
agree taxation, it is unsurprising that they would come to think that they
needed to discuss what that taxation was for, as well; and this meant that, in
most parliamentary environments, debate about national policy could (re-)
emerge. By the end of the fourteenth century, legislation was in much of Europe
signed off in some places, initiated by parliaments as well. By then, too, the
thirteenth-century concept of the community of the realm had become gener-
alised, as the public thing (res publica, chose publique) or the common good/
profit/wealth (bonum commune, bien commun), as images of a kingdom-based
collective good which was important for wide sectors of society. And, increas-
ingly, these included those who were involved in any way in political activity,
including, sometimes, non-lites like the sailors who beheaded the duke of
There are two aspects to this which need stressing. One is simply the range
of political discussion which was coming to be a recognisable part of the public
sphere. Popular reactions began to be expressed in songs and sayings; they were
often subversive, but they did not have to be. We find petitions to the English
parliament by the fourteenth century that show that non-lites urban commu-
nities, in particular, but the occasional peasant too both respected the role
(particularly the judicial/legislative role) of parliament and thought that they
could influence it.9 Propaganda begins to be visible for the first time: writings
deliberatedly circulated by political powers to shore up support, first in politi-
cally active (and literate) circles, but also by public proclamation.10 When
printing became more common at the very end of the middle ages, such actions
were of course still easier, but the world of manuscripts already had a place for it.
240 medieval europe

The other aspect, however, is that this world was very parcellised. We are
not talking here about the existence of single communities that covered whole
realms: or at least, if and when we are, that was the world of the real political
lite, of royal officials, and aristocratic or episcopal collectives. For everyone
else the initially relevant world was that of a local community, the often quite
sharply bounded social groupings which gained coherence in the eleventh
century in much of Europe and were ever more clearly delimited in the late
middle ages, as we have seen: the lordship, the town; or, at a lower level, the
kindred, the guild or confraternity, the village.11 These overlapping groupings
were often themselves opposed to each other, and much of the evidence that we
have for late medieval conflict is for disputes between them.12 Such communi-
ties were often by now, however, much more aware of their wider role in a
larger political structure and culture national identity can indeed usefully be
discussed for many late medieval polities. And, in return, in the fifteenth
century as much as in the thirteenth (see Chapter 8), the rulers of kingdoms
themselves related, not to everyone in the kingdom at once (or even to every
prosperous adult male, a more likely grouping), but to these cellular networks
of communities. In France, even taxation was agreed by towns and local assem-
blies (tats), as much as, or more than, by the estates-general, and its exaction
was sometimes devolved back down to them (it was often differently run from
place to place as well); fifteenth-century kings also devolved justice to regional
parlements, which became foci for local political communities.13 In Castile
from the late thirteenth century to the early sixteenth, leagues of towns called
brotherhoods formed spontaneously to confront royal power or inadequacy,
and sometimes wielded considerable authority in the kingdom.14 The expanded
territories of Venice, Milan, Florence, and also of the fifteenth-century dukes
of Burgundy, were all made up of networks of self-governing communities,
mostly towns in these urbanised areas, plus, in the inland Low Countries, rural
lordships; the ruling cities or dukes hegemonised them, certainly, and taxed
them, but left them alone for much of the time. Switzerland was nothing other
than a confederation of such communities; so was the Hanse. The cellular
configuration of politics which, as I have stressed, owed its form to the local
reconstructions after the feudal revolution, still marked the basic patterns of
late medieval political life, however shot through the cells were by now with
structures which linked them to royal power and kingdom-level relationships.
Any successful ruler had to and did negotiate with the different types of
community which made up his or her realm.
The importance of collective politics received a brief fillip during the period
of the Council of Basel, 143149, an unexpected direction in many ways and a
Rethinking politics, 13501500 241

failure, but important all the same. The Council of Konstanz of 141418, which
had deposed popes (see Chapter 11), established the legitimacy of councils of
prelates to decide on the fate of the western church, and was always intended to
have successors. Basel was the next to run effectively (there was one failed
council in between), and it was very well supported by the secular rulers of
Europe, who did not wish for a return to the untrammelled papal power of the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and who rested their hopes for church
reform on conciliar decisions; they also thought, here more accurately, that a
church council might be more effective than a pope in coming to terms with
the scariest political development of the period, the Hussite takeover of
Bohemia. Basel had a full complement of bishops and abbots larger than
Konstanz in fact and also, significantly, many university masters and lesser
clergy. But it did not have the pope; Eugenius IV (143147) not only never
attended it, but sought at every stage to undermine it. Indeed, at its beginning
he had tried to cancel it; the attendees ignored him, and at once responded
with a decree stating that only the council could end itself.
The stage was thus set for the most principled trial of strength between
monarchy and community of the whole late medieval period. Basel suspended
Eugenius (most of his own cardinals deserted him), and made its own deals
with the Hussites, rather effectively in fact, as well as brokering a treaty between
France and Burgundy. It also addressed several of the most serious church
abuses as they appeared to contemporaries, focusing on papal choices for
ecclesiastical offices. But Eugeniuss attempts to undermine the council became
more adept as the 1430s wore on, and matters became more tense as a result,
culminating in the council deposing the pope in 1439 and electing in his stead,
weirdly, the recently retired duke of Savoy, Amedeo VIII, as Felix V. The secular
powers maintained a studied neutrality, but this was too radical for many, and
support slowly leached back to Eugenius, and, after his death, his successor
Nicholas V; in 1449 the council finally recognised defeat and wound itself up.
Eugenius and Nicholas had to recognise much de facto secular power over
regional churches in return for lay support, all the same, even more than had
happened during the Great Schism. The interest of Basel here lies, above all, in
its role as a hothouse for new thinking about political practice. Many of the
conciliarists did indeed believe that a properly constituted council should be
the supreme authority in the church, and not popes, or even bishops. Nicholas
of Cusa (d. 1464), probably the councils most innovative thinker, wrote On
Catholic concordance in 1433 to argue strongly for the supremacy of consensus
and law over the authority of popes, and prelates in general. And Basels failure
did not stop the men trained in nearly twenty years of discussion in the council
242 medieval europe

from going their separate ways across Europe with these ideas in mind; much
like the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s, a similarly interesting failure,
it had bred a new generation of transnational experts in the principles and
practice of collective government and also of strong but self-proclaimed
constitutionalist monarchies, which were in fact the dominant powers of the
next period.15
Law is the other element that needs stress here, because there was steadily
more of it. First, theory. Justinians Roman-law corpus was often in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries treated as a text with quasi-religious authority, and
commentators on it could be remarkably unhelpful contributors to current
political understanding. One could cite here Jacques de Rvigny (d. 1296), who
wrote that France is subject to the empire you can find in [the code of Justinian].
If the king of France does not recognise this, I do not care: an attractively
forceful view, but one that wilfully ignored actual political realities. By two
generations later, however, there were some very sophisticated Roman-law
thinkers, notably Bartolo of Sassoferrato, already mentioned, and his pupil
Baldo degli Ubaldi (d. 1400), who in their most influential works showed for
the first time how Romanist ideas could cope with the medieval world as it was,
rather than as it ought ideally to be. They discussed, for example, the nature of
the divided sovereignty of their time in notably neutral terms, which was
certainly more helpful than de Rvigny. As one would expect from Italians of
the period, this Bartolist adaptation worked especially well when concerning
itself with signorial rule and popular consent at the level of cities, but their
sovereignty arguments went further too; these two had a growing impact in
Spain, France and Germany at the end of the middle ages, and indeed after.16
It was in particular legal practice, however, which imposed itself in this
period. More law was written down, and more new law was made; and, above
all, more people went to public courts, and far more court decisions were
recorded. Nor did people go to court only when they were in conflict; local
courts were often the public locations for credit agreements and other accords
as well. Early court records are associated above all with Italy and England, as
we have seen, but by the late middle ages they were everywhere, and not only
at the level of cities and kingdoms: the proceedings of public courts even at the
village level survive from Catalonia to Poland by the fifteenth century, and
rural Poland was by no means at the vanguard of processes like this.17 That is
to say, peasants as much as townspeople and lites were coming to be involved
in the arena of written law, everywhere, which in itself tied them into the polit-
ical networks we have been looking at. Even if this participation was not always
willing, and took place in contexts of greater or lesser subjection, the literate
Rethinking politics, 13501500 243

world was touching everyone by now: not changing peoples modes of thinking
(to repeat, literacy never did that), but making them aware of regularities else-
where. Public forms of the legal process were thus pervasive in nearly every
local environment, and its rules, although never perfect (and also far from
just), became familiar to an ever-higher percentage of Europeans. Trained
lawyers were more numerous (in southern Europe, they had often read
Bartolo), and legal expertise, both trained and practice-based, was even more
widespread. We saw in Chapters 8 and 10 that lay religious activity was wider-
based by 1200, and onwards from there, and that this could result in innovative
interpretations of religion which church authorities found (whether rightly or
not) threatening. The same was true for legal expertise, in the secular world, a
century or so later. Much of the sophistication of the late medieval public
sphere at both the lite level and the local level came from legal practice, and
the discourse that it generated.

* * *
To sum up so far, based on the discussions in both this chapter and the previous
one: late medieval politics was more expensive than it had been, largely because
paid armies were now normal nearly everywhere (and artillery after 1400 or so
would only add to that expense);18 taxation was thus by now much more
normal too, at least in the most coherent polities of the period, France, England,
Burgundy, the Iberian and Italian states, Hungary and the Ottoman empire.
State power was by now taken for granted; its presuppositions were only
resisted at the edges of Europe, such as Scotland and Sweden. Public debate
assumed it nearly everywhere else; disagreement focused on its direction and
its cost, not its legitimacy. And, thanks to the existence of political discussion
in parliaments and city councils, and to legal discussion in towns and villages,
the parameters of public debate were extending ever deeper into the still-
separate cells of society, which, more and more, were coming to understand the
nature of their relationships with the public good and the way that good
could and should be directed. Conscious political problem-solving is by now
better-documented too, and seems to have been rather more common than it
had been in previous centuries. We must not overgeneralise here; the different
European kingdoms and polities in 13501500 were very far from completely
coherent, particularly in the fiscally weaker realms of the north and east. The
large majority of peasants were also, in practice, excluded from real participa-
tion in most political processes, even if such processes impinged heavily on
them (as with all taxation, and of course in any war), and even if they some-
times demonstrably had views about how such processes should be managed.
244 medieval europe

But we cannot by now ignore the public sphere. Here, I want to build on this in
two directions: by looking at the role of intellectuals in this environment; and
then by looking at the space that it gave people for dissent, both in words and
in deeds. These were two different trends, but they meet, as we shall see, in the
figure of the Czech intellectual, Jan Hus, whose dissent changed the politics of
a part of Europe.
Public intellectuals in Europe, that is to say people who gained a wide
hearing for their views because of their personal expertise and authority, rather
than because of their political or social standing, did not begin in the late
middle ages. In their different and opposing ways, both Peter Abelard and
Bernard of Clairvaux in the early twelfth century were examples, as was
Michael Psellos in Constantinople in the eleventh; people already wanted to
know what they would do and say next. But there were many more of them
after 1300 or so, and also more of them were laymen than had been the case
before. When Dante, in exile for twenty years after 1302 from a position in
Florentine government because of the defeat of his city faction, wrote his highly
ambitious allegorical poem Divine comedy, people paid attention, as we have
seen; but so did they when he wrote Monarchy, a tract on the superior legiti-
macy of the secular rule of the emperor to that of the pope, and, by implication,
to that of the autonomous cities of Italy as well. This second work, not surpris-
ingly, was of no real use to most politically active figures in those cities, but it
was still seriously engaged with, because of the authority of its author.19 Half a
century later, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch, d. 1374) emerged around 1340
from a standard career as a client of Avignonese prelates into a more (to him)
attractive one as guest of several Italian cities in succession, by becoming a
famous poet (in both Latin and Italian), Ciceronian letter-writer, and writer of
highly literary tracts as well as being the first known person to claim to have
climbed a mountain for the aesthetic or spiritual pleasure of it (Czannes Mont
Ventoux in Provence, in 1336). Petrarch was useful to cities as a speechwriter,
but his real use was as a cultural icon, based on his wide reading and remark-
able literary skills.20
As Italian city lites came to value similarly wide reading, particularly in
classical literature, and (above all) elegant classicising rhetorical skills and
prose, the ranks of such intellectuals became ever denser across the late four-
teenth and especially fifteenth centuries. The ability to argue and write in a
humanist manner became a passport to patronage and prosperity. This move-
ment has traditionally been attached above all to Florence, but in fact nearly
every Italian city and courts across northern Europe too, from England to
Poland caught onto this century-long fashion for intellectual debate and
Rethinking politics, 13501500 245

complex Latin (later, Greek as well), which extended in many different direc-
tions, to science, to textual criticism, to architecture.21 This latter included the
architectural writings of Leon Battista Alberti (d. 1472), intellectual client as
usual of several city courts but also designer of some of the most expensive and
best-loved buildings in Italy in the new classical (called now, but not then,
Renaissance) style, from Rimini to Rome plus, via his protg Bernardo
Rossellino, a dramatic piazza built for the Senese pope Pius II (145864) in the
tiny Tuscan hill village of Pienza, a medieval Italian Portmeirion.22
Alberti, unlike Dante and Petrarch, became a cleric, and public intellectuals
could be clerics elsewhere too, particularly in northern Europe. Jean Gerson
(d. 1429) is a good example: a rare case of a peasant boy rising to the lite by
education, he became chancellor of the university of Paris, so had a recognised
official role; but his writing of tracts in both Latin and French, once again on
every conceivable subject, from monastic vegetarianism, through popular
superstition, to nocturnal emissions, far extended his presence. He came into
his own during the council of Konstanz, for which he was one of the principal
theorists, and he was writing tracts to the end of his life (one just before his
death on the virtues of Joan of Arc stands out for its topicality as well as its
political commitment, for Paris was by then controlled by the English, and
other university masters from there would be Joans trial judges). Gersons
tracts survive in larger numbers of manuscripts than the works of any other
late medieval intellectual except Dante. He shows well how university masters
by now could achieve a wide audience, this time for a theologically derived
intellectualism, rather than the classical culture just mentioned reminding
us, indeed, that theology remained the dominant partner in the intellectual life
of the period.23 And this brings us to the last two public intellectuals we need
to look at here, for they had something of the ambition and public success of
Gerson, and in an equally theological mould, but in each case a very different
and more dissenting direction: John Wyclif (d. 1384) and Jan Hus (d. 1415).
Wyclif had the more complex theology of the two. He was a master of the
university of Oxford, who in the 1360s and 1370s published a series of philo-
sophical and then theological works of considerable subtlety; by the mid-
1370s, however, his thought had evolved, rapidly, in the direction of a
theological critique of papal wealth, and the need for the disendowment of the
church. He also had critical ideas on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
These views, which he expressed with characteristic sharpness, were enough to
get him a papal condemnation in 1377 and expulsion from Oxford in 1382. But
it is significant that Wyclif, for a long time, had defenders too; the kings son
and regent John of Gaunt was his patron in the 1370s, and he had a popular
246 medieval europe

following as well. It was only after the Peasants Revolt of 1381, which he was
claimed to have helped foment though his preaching a claim which in itself
shows how much support he was believed to have had that the establishment
turned against him.24 Wyclif had followers afterwards as well, the Lollards,
who were regarded as heretics by the church hierarchy; one prominent Lollard,
Sir John Oldcastle, staged a half-hearted revolt in 1414, which led to a clamp-
down on Lollards generally, and an increasing marginalisation of them in
England across the rest of the century. By now, however, Wycliffite views had
gone well beyond the university, and sometimes changed as a result; Lollards
were often self-educated preachers, the sort of people who had been good men
in the Cathar period in southern Europe. Not unlike earlier lay heretics, they
regarded the authority of scripture, which they had by now in English, as supe-
rior to that of the church, rejected the latters temporal power (here they were
at their most Wycliffite), and for the most part rejected transubstantiation.25
But this heresy was different from most of its predecessors, in that it had highly
complex theological roots; Wyclif, although he took his ideas further than
most, was far from out of place in the normal run of university debates. Had he
not also had a public role, he might have survived papal hostility; the Great
Schism was starting, after all, and popes were busy.
Hus, in Bohemia a generation later, had read Wyclif, whose writings had
come to Prague, and was highly influenced by him. He was a master of the
university of Prague, and from 1409 its rector; as or more important, he was
also the main preacher at the influential Bethlehem chapel in the town. He
used this base not only to write but to preach along largely Wycliffite lines,
especially on church wealth and temporal power, on the Bible in the vernacular
(he translated much of it into Czech), and on authority in the church: popes
and priests should only be followed if they were personally holy. As the Schism
was moving to its close, it has to be said that this last view was less controversial
than it had been, and it had direct links to the principles of the councils of
Konstanz and Basel (it also had parallels in the earlier, and not-then-heretical,
Pataria in Milan). So it is not as surprising that it might be that Hus took the
risk of going to Konstanz in 141415 to defend his views, protected as he also
was by an imperial safe-conduct. He was tried and burned for heresy for all
that; he would not recant his adherence to Wyclif, who was by now fully
accepted as a heretic, and, by resisting, he rejected the authority of the council
too. This time, however, Huss lay support was far greater than that of Wyclif: it
extended to King Vclav IV to an extent, and to a large sector of the aristocracy,
as well as to Czech-speaking clerics, townsmen and peasants. The Hussite
revolt, which involved the majority of Bohemias inhabitants and represented
Rethinking politics, 13501500 247

far and away the most energetic heresy of the middle ages, was a direct result
of his death. Not all of its principles were strictly those of Hus; the clearest
distinguishing mark of subsequent Hussites, the insistence on the right to
drink wine at the Eucharist, was only taken up by Hus himself very late, in
1414, and he would, beyond doubt, have been opposed to the activities of his
most radical followers, to whom we will come in a moment. But Hus was the
one public intellectual of the middle ages whose words and actions even if
only activated by his martyrdom really did have an effect on the political life
of the continent.26
Apart from Hus, none of these figures had a major influence on the devel-
opment of the public sphere in itself. By its very nature, the discourse of the
many is seldom determined directly by the writings of the few, and not many
public intellectuals, operating outside the formal structures of power that is to
say, have ever been really effective; Luther, Marx (but again mostly after his
death), Gandhi stand out precisely because of their rarity. What these medieval
writers show, all the same, is the complexity of public discourse by now and the
acceptability of quite elaborate intellectual arguments as part of it, even if the
more policy-directed versions of such discourse debate over the tax-raising
rights of kings, or the problem-solving discussed at the start of this chapter
were also linked to more practical concerns. This was a real development of the
later middle ages, thanks to the steadily greater ease of communications, and to
the greater availability of writing among the laity, which both made the recep-
tion of written communication easier and facilitated the dissemination of
complex ideas. It does not, it must be stressed, point directly towards the
Reformation, even though that movement claimed both Wyclif and Hus as
precursors, a view still frequently held by modern historians too. Neither of
them moved in the direction of sixteenth-century Reform theorists, to oppose
the sacrality of the clergy or to insist on a thoroughgoing predestination; rather,
they were reformers in a framework of Latin revival movements going back to
at least the eleventh century, with the added twist by now of a university back-
ground in disputation. But the communications and writing-based culture of
the late medieval period (both soon further developed thanks to the rapid
expansion of printing after 1450) made the next set of moves by intellectuals
and laity to change the church, which were indeed those of Luther and his
contemporaries, that much more quickly effective.

* * *
Religious dissent was only one type of oppositional movement in the later
middle ages, and not the most common. The Hussites are the only large-scale
248 medieval europe

example of it, so we shall start with them, although we need also to recognise
that the Hussites were quite exceptional in their organisation among more
secular-minded dissenting movements too. It is not possible to attach an over-
arching social identity onto the various Hussite factions in Bohemia, which
ranged from the highest aristocrats (and even bishops) to the peasantry, but it
is at least striking that the death of Hus in 1415 led at once to an outburst of
indignation right across Bohemia, which took on more and more radical
elements in the immediately following years. Preaching in towns and villages
led to the spontaneous formation of religious communities, which then chose
their own doctrinal paths. In 1419 an insurrection in Prague led to the lynching
of the citys ruling councillors; in 141920 a group of radicals founded the new
town of Tbor and held their property in common; in May 1420 radicals and
moderates approved the Four Articles of Prague, which became the mantra on
which the different Hussite factions could agree: their main themes being the
drinking of wine at the Eucharist, the freedom to preach, and the need for the
church to be poor. In 1420 a Hussite peasant army, led by the remarkable
general Jan ika (d. 1424), won the first of a series of romantically successful
defensive battles against crusades sent against them by the papacy and
Sigismund of Hungary, now heir to his brother Wenceslas/Vclav in Bohemia
as well. These victories continued until 1434, and, as long as they did, the
radical wing of Hussitism was dominant; but even after that an aristocratic
version, with similar core beliefs, dominated in the region for nearly two centu-
ries more.27
Hussitism was not ever really a movement that had the interests of peasants
in the forefront. Tbors leadership, however religiously radical, took rents
from the peasantry in its territory just as local lords had done before, and the
only real social change which resulted from the radical Hussite period (even if
it was a major one) was a sharp reduction in church landholding and overall
wealth. The most significant feature of the movement, particularly in its early
years, 141520, was, rather, the speed with which excited reaction to Huss
death brought in more and more social strata and ever-larger areas of both city
and countryside in at least Czech-speaking Bohemia. This simple fact shows
how fast ideas could by now spread in Europe, and how rapidly involved the
peasant majority could by now become in some quite recondite theological
issues, which in Bohemia led temporarily to a peasant presence in national
politics too. That fits popular involvement in political discussion elsewhere in
Europe, even if nowhere else in this period went as far as the Czechs in their
preparedness, on religious grounds, to rethink political questions which
extended as far as the legitimacy of royal power.
Rethinking politics, 13501500 249

Oppositional movements apart from the Hussites had more secular aims,
social and political reform above all. There were more of them than historians
have often thought. Using a wide definition, Samuel Cohn has recently identi-
fied over a thousand popular movements and revolts, in towns and villages, in
Italy, France and the Low Countries alone between 1200 and 1425. Of these,
nearly 60 per cent postdated the Black Death; that is to say, the second half
of the fourteenth century saw a sharp increase in them.28 They continued
throughout the fifteenth century too, and indeed into the sixteenth, up to the
Castilian comuneros of 152021, the south German Peasants War of 1525, and
the Norfolk Rising in England in 1549. One of the most successful was one of
the latest in the middle ages, the uprising in Catalonia of the Remences, servile
peasants, against the seigneurial dues which marked their subjection, in 1462
86. The case is unusual, because the peasants here had the support of a succes-
sion of Aragonese kings, from the 1380s onwards, who had their own reasons
to want to reduce the rights of their aristocracy. But the coherence of
peasant demands steadily increased from then onwards, which led to one-off
uprisings, and then generalised war in the 1460s as a royal succession dispute
engulfed Aragn. In part because of peasant armed support for his father in
the war, Ferdinand II formally abolished serfdom in 1486. The Remena
revolt shows quite clearly that a common narrative of peasant rebellion, that
each one was tragically drowned in blood, is not always accurate. Many upris-
ings in Cohns earlier data-set also went unpunished, even if few were as
successful as the Remences; so did, outside his area of study, the peasants of
Dithmarschen in the far north of Germany, who held off both local lords and
the kings of Denmark throughout the fifteenth century, the legally informed
peasants of the Croatian islands in the same period, who could negotiate with
the doge of Venice in person, and, not least, the peasants of the Swiss mountain
communities, whose independence had been definitively established by the
end of the fourteenth century.29
The Remena uprising was however atypical in one crucial respect: that it
was focused on landlords. Most revolts were not against landowners (or, in
towns, against employers); they were not against working conditions, or only
partially so. What links most of the popular oppositional movements of the
later middle ages is their resistance to the exactions and injustices less of land-
lords than of the state, including to the new oppression of fiscality. The great
Peasants Revolt in eastern England in 1381, already cited, was set off by the
poll tax of that and previous years, and when the rebels attacked London they
targeted royal officials quite carefully, such as John of Gaunt (whose palace
they burned down) and the chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury (whom they
250 medieval europe

beheaded). They did, certainly, seek the abolition of serfdom, as well as the
lowering of rents, but their demands otherwise focused on taxation, law and
good government, and their demand for freedom from serfdom was as much a
demand for a generalised, community-based, political liberty.30 The equally
large-scale Jacquerie in the countryside around Paris in 1358 (this revolt, at
least, was repressed very bloodily) was against the aristocracy, not a tax revolt
against the state, but its main context was still political: in the chaos of the
Hundred Years War, peasant self-help developed into an attack on the aristoc-
racy who had failed to protect the peasantry, as aristocratic rhetoric claimed it
was supposed to. The rural revolts against the city of Florence in the 1400s were
set off because tax was not only high, but unfair, in that it was higher in some
parts of the Florentine territory than in others, which the peasants were fully
aware of. This was even more clearly the case in the very numerous uprisings
in towns throughout continental Europe, in the Low Countries, France, Spain,
Italy, or the German lands, which were aimed at reducing taxes, or asserting
local political rights for citizens who felt excluded (although these were not
often the poorest urban strata), or simply to make the exercise of such rights
real in the maze of overlapping jurisdictions which marked most cities. Revolts
of this kind were very rare in the early middle ages, when state power was rela-
tively weak or distant. The fact that they became more common after 1250 and
much more common after 1350 was a result, above all, of the fact that states
(including city-states) taxed more heavily and ruled more intensively than they
had before; they were a reaction to a more intrusive state power, that is to say,
and were also more frequent where that power was strongest. The explicit
imagery of liberty marked a large number of them; so did justice, and truth, as
again in England in 1381. Communities here asserted themselves, not just
against outsiders, as we saw in Chapter 10, but against rulers as well.31
And that brings these oppositional movements and revolts back to the
arena of the public sphere. We have seen that discussion about the direction
of politics had by now extended to ever-wider strata of society. This sort of
discussion could turn to direct, violent, interventions, as, in the England of
1450, the death of the duke of Suffolk and Jack Cades rebellion both show; and
the speed in Bohemia in the 1410s by which animated religious dissent led to
direct action is another example of the same process. In 1381, too, even if the
English rebels had not been inspired by Wyclif (which remains unproven), they
understood much of what was going on in English politics and could target its
leaders as well as being very conscious indeed of the power of writing, as the
strategic burning of public legal records in London and of manorial records in
the villages of much of eastern England both show. So, in the generations after
Rethinking politics, 13501500 251

the Black Death, a sense that political discussion and protagonism did not
belong only to traditional lites became much more generalised in much of
Europe; conversely, given that there were in most countries no legitimate
outlets for non-lite protagonism, either urban or rural, it is not surprising that
it could turn to violence. But, although this violence was sometimes so far-
reaching that one can see it as genuinely revolutionary, it could easily be trans-
actional as well, aimed at more immediate political goals, which were sometimes
achieved. It thus belonged on the same spectrum as the more institutionalised,
but equally active and protagonistic (and sometimes itself violent), public
arena of parliaments, law courts, and political tracts. There was a socio-
economic background to these patterns of non-lite direct action as well, of
course. It may well be that the shock of the Black Death and the rising pros-
perity of its survivors allowed at least some of the great majority of disenfran-
chised Europeans to think more widely about their place in the world; and the
regions with the greatest fiscal pressure were also often regions with relatively
great internal economic complexity and social mobility too, which helped the
development of new ideas. But it is also the case that the ease of communica-
tions and the widening of literacy made not only political debate but also
organised opposition a more possible process. In this respect the English
Peasants Revolt was not at all the one-off and fantasy-based failure which it
has often been painted as being, but, rather, a model for the political protago-
nism of the later middle ages as a whole.32
chapter thirteen


What really changed in Europe in the medieval millennium? I listed what I see
as the most important single moments of change at the start of Chapter 1, and
we have followed them across the whole of this book. Now, however, we need
to step back a little, and get a sense of Europe as a whole, with some wider
generalisations, ending up with the late medieval world we have been looking
at in the last three chapters. One thing which remained constant throughout
the middle ages was the importance of the old Roman imperial frontier. It is
true that, as we have seen, the broad configuration of the political map of most
of twenty-first-century Europe was very roughly established by 1500; this is
important in itself, and was a real consequence of medieval European social
and political change as a whole. But we can also by now see that, if we look
underneath that map, at the infrastructure of the kingdoms and polities of the
fifteenth century, the old RhineDanube border kept its relevance: nearly all
the strong states lay south of that border, and north of it, political coherence
was rather more intermittent, as we saw in Chapter 11. It is true that, south of
the border, some regions had had a relatively difficult history, with severe
structural breaks at different times much of the Balkans, for example; to the
north, too, Hungary and some other polities had gained considerable strength.
But the infrastructures of the Roman world, roads and the city network in
particular, still mattered; in France, in Spain, in Italy, and not least in the
Ottoman empire (whose territories hardly, except after 1500 for Iraq and
Hungary, extended outside the old imperial provinces), the continuities with
the past remained. The Roman frontier indeed only finally lost its force from
the eighteenth century onwards.
That was a marker of structural continuities, then, across the agrarian world
of the middle ages. But there were plenty of structural changes too. As we saw
in Chapters 7 and 11, the population of Europe went through some sharp
shifts; after a decrease in the early middle ages, it picked up again around 900,

Conclusion 253

and tripled in size between then and 1300, after which the Black Death halved
it again. This had an effect on agricultural production, which, by and large,
followed these developments quite closely, the central middle ages being a
period of intensification and land clearance, and the late middle ages being a
period in which agrarian specialisation became more widespread, as there was
a less intense demand for grain as the basic staple for human life. The long
boom also produced a commercial complexity, focused on Flanders and
northern Italy, which was sufficiently well based that it could survive the Black
Death, and indeed increase its geographical range in the later middle ages.
Economic activity was much more broadly based at the end of the middle ages
than it had been at the beginning, then, and it was beginning to lessen even the
long-standing economic differences between north and south.
As to cultural change: the Christianisation of most of Europe, spreading
outwards from the ex-Roman provinces to the north and east of the continent
in the second quarter of the middle ages in particular, was one major shift, even
if, as I argued in Chapter 5, its effects were very regionally diverse. It brought
the structures of the church with it, which meant that from the twelfth century
onwards there was a single ecclesiastical hierarchy which covered the whole of
Latin Europe, although not the more decentralised Orthodox east. Church
leaders tried to use that structure to impose consistent patterns of belief, or at
least observance, across over half the continent. They failed Europe never
became culturally homogeneous, a point I will come back to but it is at least
significant that they tried. Perhaps more important than this, however, was the
slow extension of literate practices across more and more of Europe, and also,
from the thirteenth century onwards, to a greater range of social strata: from
lay lites to townspeople, then even, occasionally, to a few sectors of the peasant
majority. The effect that this had on the way people behaved we have explored
in Chapters 4, 8, 10 and 12. It means that we know more, about more sectors of
society, but it also meant that they did themselves too; information exchange
was much more widely based at the end of the middle ages than it had been at
the beginning. But, if the structures of the church tended towards attempted
religious and thus cultural homogeneity, the extension of literate practices
reinforced difference; local societies were just as likely to reach varying conclu-
sions about how they should deal with the world if they had independent
access to the texts which discussed it, and sometimes would become more
obstinate about their views as well. This was all the more the case because local
societies tended more and more to be constructed as bounded communities
with distinct social structures and identities, which was one key element of the
sociopolitical changes across the medieval millennium.
254 medieval europe

If we focus on these sociopolitical changes, in fact, we can see a particularly

clear division between the first half of the medieval millennium and the second.
The political developments in Latin Europe after the Black Death which we
have looked at in the last two chapters had earlier roots, but these went back,
above all, to the eleventh century. The eleventh century indeed marked more of
a break in the history of medieval western Europe than any century after the
fifth, in several crucial respects. Before then, despite the dramatic regionalisa-
tion of the post-Roman world, which led to the loss of wealth and power of
most rulers and lites (except in part in Francia), the larger early medieval
kingdoms, Spain, Francia and Italy, had inherited from the Roman empire
a political practice and a sense of a public power which lasted for centuries.
This public world led to some very ambitious politics indeed under the
Carolingians, when kings, lay aristocrats and clerics worked more tightly
together to further political reform than in any other period of the middle
ages. The centrality of the royal-focused public sphere for political players was
inherited straight from the Roman past, and was augmented by a widespread
sense across the early medieval centuries that the politics of assemblies, which
were also held in public, was a key to political legitimacy. Even if that centrality
was no longer made definitive by the continuity of the wealth derived from
taxation, it was still crucial, for power at the local level was ill-developed and
was seldom considered legitimate on its own: aristocrats, in particular, were
regarded not inaccurately as losers if they focused on local power, and
avoided the royal patronage which remained so honourable and lucrative. The
tenth century marked the continuation of that world, particularly in Germany
and Italy, and by now in England too, and also the beginnings of its extension
northwards and eastwards into the Scandinavian and Slavic lands; but across a
long eleventh century it ended nearly everywhere. These western polities were
surpassed by a Byzantine empire, where the loss of its eastern provinces to the
Arabs in the seventh century did not result in the breakdown of traditional
political and fiscal structures; for a shorter period, essentially the tenth century,
the Byzantine example was matched by the brilliance and coherence of the
Umayyad caliphate in al-Andalus as well. The Byzantines remained Roman in
their style of ruling until the permanent destruction of imperial unity with
separatist revolts in the late twelfth century and the fall of Constantinople to
the crusaders in 1204; in the east, in fact, the late-twelfth-century break matches
that of the eleventh in the west, and was even sharper.
In the west, the political practice of the eleventh century onwards was
however very different. We have seen in the last half of this book how it initially
depended on three underlying changes. First, the breakdown of Carolingian
Conclusion 255

political structures in much of western Europe, into a network of counties,

lordships and local urban and rural communities, in the so-called feudal revo-
lution, at different moments between 950 and 1100 or so. Second, the recon-
struction of political power in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which was
henceforth, however, set against the cellular network of these partly autono-
mous communities. Third, the long economic boom of the tenth to thirteenth
centuries, just mentioned, which left a Europe with considerable economic
prosperity and flexibility, continuing into the later middle ages. The second
and third of these, put together, allowed the development of more complex
forms of taxation by some rulers, which in their turn allowed for the expansion
of new strata of paid officials, who were more often trained, in universities and
other schools, institutions by now themselves made possible because a more
complex economy could sustain them. Most of these developments can soon
be found, in slightly different forms, in the Ottoman empire as well; but there
the processes of development were more continuous, after the decentralisation
of the period 12001400 in south-eastern Europe, for the Ottomans inherited
so much from Byzantium notwithstanding sharp changes, of course, in their
religion and political language.
And this brings us back to the late middle ages. By 1350 in the west, legal
expertise was sufficiently widely spread that written law could become more
visible in localities, a process that would extend literate practices further and
further into the different communities of Europe. And after 1350 the steady
extension of tax-raising powers itself contributed in much of Europe to the
development of communities of taxpayers, whether cities or newly appearing
collective kingdom-wide bodies, that is to say parliaments. But a greater access
to writing, and a reaction to a growing intrusiveness of central power, them-
selves contributed to the coherence of local communities, and to their capacity
to react against outsiders, whether rival communities, out-groups, or the state.
Rulers were thus stronger, but so were the communities of the ruled. In this
environment, the need to consent to taxation, and often legislation, created a
public sphere which after 1350/1400 was stronger than it had ever been before
in the middle ages, except in the high days of Carolingian assembly politics.
The protagonism of all levels of society, from aristocrats to peasants, which we
looked at in the last chapter, derived from that. So did a newfound attention to
political problem-solving, which was another product of this developing public
sphere as also of the training of the official strata and an attention to their
accountability, which started in the twelfth century and which extended there-
after. From this derived a new capacity for organised dissent, the signs of which
are present in nearly every country of Latin Europe. In this way the world of
256 medieval europe

the English Peasants Revolt, the Hussites, and the late medieval public sphere
as a whole, can be tracked back, through these multiple channels, to the social
and political changes unleashed by the feudal revolution. This process in a
sense simply marked the reinvention of the public world of the Carolingian
period; but this time it was reinforced, strongly, by local community politics,
just as much as by the assemblies ratified and called by kings.
To repeat, however: this apparently Europe-wide politics was not homoge-
neous. European cultures, it is true, had moved closer together in some ways,
as communications, and indeed commerce, linked nearly everywhere, at least
at a couple of removes and that again included the Ottoman world too, and
even Muscovy, where Italian architects were building churches and secular
buildings in the Moscow Kremlin from the 1470s.1 The fact that Scandinavian
kings in their dealings with their parliaments sometimes look as if they are
trying to imitate the immensely richer and more powerful kings of France is a
sign that some practices did indeed cover almost the whole of Europe. Perhaps
only Lithuania and Muscovy at one edge of Europe, and the Irish princes at the
other, had by now presuppositions about political action which would have
been really unfamiliar to other Europeans. Some form of parliamentary poli-
tics was close to universal, at least in Latin Europe, and intellectuals moved
about in it everywhere, including to (and from) Poland, Sweden and Scotland.
But, once again, this was a far from complete process. The growth of vernacu-
lars, which reintroduced problems of translation, actively impeded it; so did
the revival of nationally focused churches in the fifteenth century, and the
increasing antagonism between the Ottomans and the Latin polities. We have
seen that similarities in political practices covered up major differences in
political resources. And other aspects of local society and culture travelled
much less well than the patterns of politics. Venetian ambassadors, whose
frank reports on the countries they were serving in begin to survive from the
end of the fifteenth century, were highly critical at some of the things they saw:
the surprising tendency of Parisians to praise the childish behaviour of King
Charles VIII in 1492, or the extreme hostility to foreigners and the weird
custom of wives inheriting from husbands in England in 1497.2 Venice would,
of course, not have been any less strange to northern Europeans.
But these divergences do not detract from the basic argument of the second
half of this book. Which is that the strength of local, cellular, politics, plus the
extension of literate practices to ever-wider social groups, plus a continuing
high-equilibrium economic system, plus a newly intrusive state, made possible
by taxation, communications and, once again, literacy, helped to create polit-
ical s